May 21, 2003 4:34 PM PDT

Opera wails about MSN problem

In the latest act of their Wagnerian cycle of malfunction and recrimination, Norse browser company Opera and Microsoft are feuding over a glitch that prevents what Opera estimates to be approximately 30 percent of its users from accessing Microsoft's MSN portal.

The glitch causes some Opera surfers trying to visit MSN to encounter a server error that says busy traffic is preventing them from accessing the site. Opera users have taken to the browser company's message boards, scratching their heads over the apparent MSN lockout, speculating on its connection to prior Opera-MSN problems and pointing out other problems associated with accessing Microsoft's Xbox gaming Web site.

Microsoft denied categorically that it was intentionally shutting out Opera users. And Opera executives who have examined the problem have acknowledged that although the vast majority of affected Web surfers use Opera, the MSN problem in some cases can also stymie users of Microsoft's own Internet Explorer browser.

But the glitch, which Opera said it has brought to Microsoft's attention, is rekindling mutual frustration and suspicion between the browser upstart and the software giant. The two companies have traded accusations over a lengthening string of incidents that MSN has rendered incorrectly or not at all, according to Opera.

The conflict between Opera and MSN dates back to October 2001, when Microsoft rewrote MSN in such a way that Opera, AOL Time Warner's browsers, and other competitors to IE could not access the site.

MSN immediately backed down after the lockout drew media attention, but not before it had attracted the complaints of critics who raised antitrust concerns that Microsoft was using its media properties to protect its overwhelming lead in the Web browser market.

More than a year's intermission passed before the next plot twist in the Opera-MSN saga, when Opera accused MSN of sending its browser a faulty, nonstandard style sheet that resulted in a distorted view of MSN through Opera.

In retaliation for the style sheet contretemps, Opera produced a version of its browser that rendered MSN in gibberish, translating its text into the "Bork, bork, bork" language of the Muppet Show's Swedish Chef. Opera later said its cell phone Web browsing technology would never support Microsoft systems.

Microsoft sought to disassociate the current glitch from past acrimony.

"Certainly it's not our intent to cause any issues with Opera browsers," said Lisa Gurry, Microsoft's group product manager for MSN. "We've made improvements to our site before so that Opera 7 users can have the same experience that IE users have. If this turns out to be a legitimate issue, we'll work with Opera to make the necessary improvement. I certainly don't think it's an indication of any broader issue."

Opera executives said they had located the problem in MSN's handling of text language preferences, and that the problem, while not specific to Opera, disproportionately affected its users.

"It turns out that the MSN server is misconfigured in yet another way which targets Opera users," wrote Opera Chief Technology Officer Hakon Lie in an e-mail exchange. "In some rare cases, the bug affects IE users as well...However, the error affects Opera users much more than IE users since few (IE) users define their own languages."

 

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