Tangled Webs

    Your Browsing XPerience
Issue 6.5
October 25, 2001

I miss the excitement of the browser wars. Every few months both Microsoft and Netscape released new versions of their browsers with new and occasionally interesting features. Unfortunately, innovation pretty much ground to a halt with Netscape's demise, and the web browser has become what marketers refer to as "a stable platform."

By the time this article appears in print, Microsoft's Windows XP should be hitting the desktop and millions of users will be getting their first taste of Internet Explorer 6 -- the first major upgrade to IE in over two and a half years. Curiously, what is most interesting about this upgrade is not what new features have been added, but which features were removed.


Now that Netscape is no longer a viable threat, Microsoft is free to innovatively remove all that confusing cross-platform support. Java was quickly frog-marched out the door for IE6. In and of itself, this is neither surprising nor cause for alarm. Microsoft's Java support has always been lukewarm. Long ago, Sun and other companies developed IE plug-ins that enabled Java to run properly in Internet Explorer. Even without Microsoft's blessing, consumers could continue to use the plug-ins to run Java. Unfortunately, Microsoft also dropped support for plug-ins.

All existing plug-ins must now be rewritten as Microsoft Active-X controls if they are to continue to work. Programmers I spoke to explained that it would be possible to write an Active-X control to provide the same Java functionality as the old plug-in, but all expressed doubts that this would be the case much longer.

Java in the browser is dead, but Java itself remains quite strong. Browser-side Java received a fair amount of attention because it was highly visible, but it was never as well supported or widely used as Java on the server. Most Java programs written today run outside the browser and will continue to run just fine on Windows XP.

Smart Tags

Smart Tags were an innovative feature which appeared in early betas of IE6 and in the final release of Office XP. To address a problem Microsoft referred to as "underlinked sites," IE6 inserted its own links around select keywords contained in any web page it displayed.

The word "Microsoft", for example, would link back to the company's home page, any mention of Windows XP could link to an online order form, and a ticker symbol could be automatically linked to stock quotes and news at Microsoft's finance site. Smart Tags also allow Microsoft to sell keywords in the same way search engines do. The amount of money Microsoft could generate here is astounding. How much do you think Sony would pay to have every occurrence of "DVD Player" on the Web link to their online store?

Smart Tags caused immediate and vocal backlash among webmasters and content creators who sill harbor quaint notions that they, not Microsoft, should be in control the content and advertising at the sites they create. In July, Microsoft announced that Smart tags would be removed from the final release of IE6.

Smart Tags, however, are neither gone nor forgotten. They are disabled in IE6, but the are still there, and they are still a part of Office XP. Microsoft spokesmen have been clear that they will be reactivated in a "more palatable" form.

Safe Cookies

Safe cookies, which are really just a security setting, seemed like a great idea when I first heard about them. I have always been somewhat annoyed by companies like DoubleClick who track my Interment movements by setting cookies from other companies' sites. By default, early versions of IE6 would only allow the sites that you were visiting to set cookies. Cookies from third-party sites like DoubleClick were blocked.

Implemented properly, safe cookies could put these tracking companies out of business in a matter of months, but I have always considered their practices somewhat invasive and would not morn their passing. However, it seemed odd that Microsoft, who has a rather dismal record on consumer privacy, was so concerned about this rather minor third-party cookie issue.

Everything made more sense, after a bit of testing. Neither Microsoft nor its subsidiaries were considered to be third-parties. In other words, by Redmond standards, DoubleClick tracking your web-viewing habits is invasive and would be blocked, Microsoft's Banner Network tracking your web-viewing habits is acceptable and would be permitted.

Safe cookies was dropped from the final release amid threats of anti-trust action, but they will undoubtedly be reintroduced as soon as Microsoft thinks it can get away with it.

The Myth of Consumer Demand

I realize that most articles on new software try to explain features in terms of what they mean to consumers. I can't help but consider that approach superficial in this case. At this point, we consumers enter into the equation only so far as Microsoft can leverage our eyeballs. In a perverse inversion of market dynamics, features are introduced into Microsoft's monopoly products to promote the sale of their non-monopoly products, and features are removed due to customer demand.

The browser war is over, and Microsoft has won. Now comes the occupation.

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© Copyright 2001, Tim Romero, t3@t3.org
This article fist appeared in the July 25th edition of The Japan Times.
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