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Browser wars

by Eric Lee

A few days ago, Microsoft made headlines around the world with the launch of their new operating system, Windows XP. While the mainstream media were filled with articles and advertisements (and sometimes you couldn't tell which was one or the other), the alternative media on the web was discussing an altogether different issue.

Participants in the popular Slashdot website ( ) were more concerned by a secret decision taken by Microsoft just prior to the launch of XP. The software giant moved to ban users of competing web browsers from visiting the company's flagship website, MSN ( ).

What this meant in practice was that if you were using, say, Netscape Navigator as your web browsing software, when you tried to visit MSN's website -- which is one of the most popular destinations on the web -- you were greeted with an odd message. It stated something to the effect that you were using a crap piece of software and wouldn't be able to enjoy the full 'experience' of the MSN site unless you viewed it using Microsoft's own software, Internet Explorer.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Internet, this was akin to BBC1 denying access to people with, say, Sony televisions and demanding that they buy a JVC television right now.

Microsoft's explanation was patently nonsensical. It claimed that only its web browsing product -- which is distributed free of charge -- could properly display the underlying code on the website.

To computer geeks and others in the know, this was hilarious. For years Microsoft was notorious for being the least standards-compliant company around. Even today, many parts of Microsoft's website are written in a code that really is only correctly viewable in their own software -- because the code they use is not at all standards-compliant. Microsoft is publicly committed to an open, standards-based Internet, but in reality it has long promoted closed, proprietary software.

The funny thing is that Microsoft was targetting rivals who are so much smaller than the software giant that one is surprised they appeared on Microsoft's radar screen.

On of these is Opera, a tiny Norwegian company which has been valiantly battling against Microsoft and its main rival, AOL Netscape, for several years. Opera has its fans to be sure, but their market share is probably not above one percent of Internet users.

Microsoft was so determined to crush Opera, that they specifically wrote some code to prevent users of this particular browser software from entering the MSN site. Opera experts found that by changing a single letter in the string of code identifying the software -- e.g., changing it from "Opera" to "Ophra" -- they were able to get past Microsoft's block.

This is a staggering thought: somewhere in the headquarters of the world's largest computer company sits a team whose specific job it is to decimate a little company in Oslo who dared to create an alternative product.

Another target specifically attacked by Microsoft is the Mozilla web browser. Mozilla is an open source software project launched by Microsoft's arch-rival AOL Netscape, a few years ago. It is still under development and its users are computer enthusiasts who like this sort of thing. They, like Opera users, were deliberately blocked from accessing MSN.

Ironically, both Opera and Mozilla are more standards-compliant than Microsoft's own product, Internet Explorer. And like Microsoft's product, they are both free of charge. (They are also better products.)

The reaction of many in the open source community and elsewhere on the Internet was shock, outrage -- and a strengthened commitment to using alternative products where these are as good as, or better than, Microsoft's own.

If you're sick and tired of Microsoft's bullying, or just want a better alternative experience using the web, check out the alternatives.

The latest version of Mozilla can be downloaded at

Opera can be found at

A special trade union version of Opera is available here:

This article appeared in the Scottish Socialist Voice -- "the paper that's NOT owned by millionaires".

This document was last modified: Wednesday, 23-Nov-2022 08:33:37 CET

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