November 1, 2001 4:00 AM PST

Rival browsers benefiting from MSN gaffe

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In May, the company announced that it would supply IBM's Internet appliances with browser software, and it had previous deals with Advanced Micro Devices, Ericsson, Psion and Be.

Berners-Lee unplugged

Following are excerpts from Tim Berners-Lee's e-mail interview with CNET News.com regarding access problems with MSN for non-Microsoft browsers:

"...let's talk about the architecture of the Web, and its community practices. I have fought since the beginning of the Web for its openness: that anyone can read Web pages with any software running on any hardware.

"This is what makes the Web itself. This is the environment into which so many people have invested so much energy and creativity. When I see any Web site claim to be only readable using particular hardware or software, I cringe--they are pining for the bad old days when each piece of information needed a different program to access it."

***

"Horizontal dominance is easy to spot. You notice if there is only one brand of computer or only one operating system, only one Web portal to chose from.

"It's less easy to be aware of the fact that your computer subtly comes with a preferred browser, which has a preferred search engine, and that the search engine is giving you answers which guide your shopping and are controlled by the company which controls your desktop. These are both bad for the public, bad for the competitive market.

"People think they are searching the Web and in fact they always are asking the same corporation for information. That is insidious. Control over a person's desktop and their browser is control over their whole Net-mediated perception of the world out there. It is very powerful."

***

"I feel that open, competitive markets, free thought and democracy all flourish only when we defend the medium itself as being independent. That may mean constraints that carriers cannot also supply software, that suppliers of generic software should be constrained from competing in markets which that software gives access to."

Still, Opera and others face a daunting nemesis: Internet Explorer has more than 80 percent of the browser market, dwarfing its rivals. Netscape holds about 13 percent, while Opera, Mozilla and Amaya--which caters to individual and corporate Web designers--make up the rest.

Amaya was developed by Web technologists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and lets people read and edit sites simultaneously. Amaya released new software at the same time as the Microsoft flap last week, so developers there are reluctant to credit the software giant exclusively for increased downloads. MIT also publishes an obscure "validator" used to screen whether sites comply with W3C standards, and the site received a flood of use from people eager to test MSN.com's compliance.

On Oct. 24, before the MSN.com block, 11 people checked site standards through the W3C's HTML Validation Service. On Oct. 25, the day CNET News.com first reported the issue, 4,128 people tested standards. The following day, 16,732 people tested standards.

Breaking rank
The squabble also prompted an outcry from Berners-Lee, who holds the 3Com Founders Chair at the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT.

His response was surprising, given that Microsoft is a member of the W3C and the consortium has an unofficial policy of refraining from singling out individual members. Berners-Lee wrote the first Web client and server in 1990 and is credited with creating the World Wide Web.

"I have fought since the beginning of the Web for its openness: that anyone can read Web pages with any software running on any hardware," he wrote in response to written questions. "This is what makes the Web itself. This is the environment into which so many people have invested so much energy and creativity. When I see any Web site claim to be only readable using particular hardware or software, I cringe--they are pining for the bad old days when each piece of information needed a different program to access it."

The incident is still fanning anger in the technology industry, largely because Microsoft hasn't completely fixed its alleged error. Although people using non-Microsoft browsers are not entirely locked out as they were last week, some browsers are still having difficulties on MSN.com.

Trying to view MSN.com through Opera results in oversized fonts and improper formatting. The problem involved an issue with MSN.com's "cascading style sheets," rendering them slightly off when viewed through Opera. Cascading style sheets automate the task of changing the style and layout of multiple Web pages, so that one change flows through to all related pages, much like a template.

Viewing the same page through Amaya results in odd colors that render some text unreadable. Janet Daly, head of communications for MIT, was cautious about blaming Microsoft, noting that sometimes colors aren't always rendered perfectly on sites other than MSN.com.

Berners-Lee sounded a more critical note. "Control over a person's desktop and their browser is control over their whole Net-mediated perception of the world out there," he wrote. "It is very powerful."

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