Internet Explorer

Is one crappy piece of software. But one which stirred a rather lively discussion yesterday, at the end of another day’s work. The main point of contention was not that IE sucks (everyone agreed to that: some versions more than others, but overall, they all suck). Rather, it was about whether Microsoft should be able to commercialize a browser that does not respect web standards. At first glance, this seems to be the case. I mean, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so? Furthermore, as one colleague pointed out, back in the day of 56kbps connections, downloading a ~1Mb browser, was a royal pain: it would usually take more than two hours. So when Microsoft developed Internet Explorer, and shipped it pre-installed with the Windows CD, as the adoption of the latter soared, the former rode along.

To be clear: so far none of the behaviours described above are (or ought to be, IMHO) illegal. Of course, Microsoft’s demeanour went well beyond what I’ve described above. Its strategy “embrace, extend and extinguish” was particularly notorious (and nefarious):

  1. Embrace: Development of software substantially compatible with a competing product, or implementing a public standard.
  2. Extend: Addition and promotion of features not supported by the competing product or part of the standard, creating interoperability problems for customers who try to use the ‘simple’ standard.
  3. Extinguish: When extensions become a de facto standard because of their dominant market share, they marginalize competitors that do not or cannot support the new extensions.

It’s bullet point number 3 above, that is illegal. Microsoft could only do it after both Windows and IE achieved widespread adoption, i.e., after they achieved a monopoly, of both operating system and browser. The question now becomes why should #3 be illegal? After all, both monopolies were achieved by Microsoft’s merits.

The short answer to why should #3 be illegal, is that it stifles innovation. For the purpose of markets is to foster innovation through competition. This doesn’t automatically make monopolies illegal, but it does put them under a much tighter grip, for the potential for abuse is enormous. And that was indeed what happened: IE evolved in such a way as to create what in practice was a de facto custom standard, which made it very hard for competitors to implement browsers compatible with IE. It is of little comfort to claim that this isn’t Microsoft’s fault, but rather that of the web designers’, for using extensions that are not a part of the standard. After all, it’s not the designers that have a monopoly, nor should it be theirs the responsibility of ensuring a competitive market. The net result was that as Microsoft’s custom changes to HTML rendering were adopted for the majority of sites, because the majority of sites was designed to display properly in the most used browser (IE at the time), anyone trying to design an alternative browser was stuck fighting an uphill battle to keep things compatible with IE. In other words, this creates a much higher barrier of entry in the browser market, thus ensuring the IE continued to rule unchallenged, not because it was the best product, but because its monopoly hindered the entry of competing products. This killed innovation, and subverted market forces, and was what prompted legal action against Microsoft in the past. And this is why IE (or any other browser that enjoys a monopoly) should not be allowed to add proprietary extensions: because these will easily become a de facto standard, which will distort market forces in order to perpetuate its monopoly.

I’ll will end pointing that the different versions IE no longer have a browser monopoly, and that was possible because increasing versions of IE increasingly support web standards, which made it possible for other browsers to compete with IE on product merit alone. And that is the one feature that all competitive markets have: competition is based on product merit, and NOT on product user share.

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