Microsoft vs. the EU: Can we legislate to force a company to use Web standards ..

I have been a big fan of Opera and of Web standards – but the libertarian in me is disappointed with the news this morning that European officials have taken action against Microsoft, accusing it of distorting competition in the web browser market

On the face of it, it sounds like a victory for Open systems and Web standards – however I don’t believe so.

The real question is: Can you legislate to force a company to follow Web standards?

The story has two parts as the original Opera complaint shows:

Opera requests the Commission to implement two remedies to Microsoft’s abusive actions. First, it requests the Commission to obligate Microsoft to unbundle Internet Explorer from Windows and/or carry alternative browsers pre-installed on the desktop. Second, it asks the European Commission to require Microsoft to follow fundamental and open Web standards accepted by the Web-authoring communities.

The first is a well known issue and is not new. My personal view is: today we have a choice in the browser market. I am a user of both Mozilla and Chrome. I am a fan of Chrome. Market forces are at play. So be it – for it is a good thing. In the early days, I started with Netscape. Then shifted to Microsoft. It was for a simple reason that Netscape had too many bugs! Today, we have a choice between many browsers and that’s good.

However, the second argument is more interesting

Can we legislate and force a company to use Web standards?

A browser is not the same as a spreadsheet – in the sense that the browser does not create content. It merely renders it. The argument goes that forcing everyone to follow the same standards will make all web pages renderable on all browsers. In my view, this argument takes the ‘content creation’ logic to web browsing. And I am not sure that it translates exactly since nothing is being created – just rendered.

In terms of rendering(content consumption i.e. browser) .. Product conformity does not matter to the consumer. In contrast, It matters to a greater degree in content creation – for instance spreadsheet. If you doubt this, then think of YouTube. We all use Flash within YouTube – which is NOT an open standard. And we don’t really mind. Because it is a different use case(and in my view conceptually similar to the browsing use case)!

So, maybe the EU should legislate that we should NOT use flash? and that Google should use something else for video?

That’s silly. And that’s my point ..

How exactly lack of following Web standards undermines product innovation is also not very clear to me.

In addition, the W3C itself is not immune to specific agendas as we see in this meaning of thematic consistency(see comments from Luca – frank as usual!) . W3C also works with .mobi - and there are many who are not exactly comfortable with this since it you could create Cascading style sheets to create the same effect if you really desired One Web. This is not to say, .mobi is wrong – it is more to say that standards bodies also cannot be relied to be 100% consistent.

Thus, we are entering a slippery slope.

Different browsers enforce web standards differently. It is very difficult to create blanket legislation and further enforce it

Personally, I love Google Chrome and architecturally – it brings about major changes.

So, the greatest threat to Microsoft is from the market – and that is a good thing.

From a legislative standpoint, at the current time, we should all focus on overcoming the recession. The users have a choice as the uptake of both Mozilla and Chrome points out and no one should be forced to use a Web standard.

PS:

a) I have no commercial relationship with Microsoft.

b) This blog is syndicated on the W3C – and I am glad that they like contradictory views.

Update

Comment from Luca Passani below

Ajit, I have not reviewed the things you write about the EU action in detail, but I think I agree with your perplexities. It all checks out.

Up to a few year ago, I would have sympathized with Opera and against Microsoft in a similar situation and without further background information. I am older and wiser now and I have more experience. More importantly, I have seen Opera in action within W3C and elsewhere.

Now, Opera has a great web browser which they also turned into a good mobile browser. When it comes to standards though, they have used their involvement in W3C rather ruthlessly to get themselves and their products a competitive advantage. I am not saying that this is wrong, but IMO it clashes with the image of pure and spotless developer-friendly almost-like-we-are-not-here-for-the-profit image that the company would like to present itself with. W3C standards are driven by companies which pay to seat at the W3C table. Often times, smaller companies will be the one taking the most important decisions: while larger companies follow distractedly, small companies really put a lot of effort in driving standards the way they need in order to be the first to declare standard compliance. Opera is a good example of that. Within BPWG (the Mobile Web Best Practices initiative by W3C), Opera tried to get W3C to recommend features that only the Opera browser supported fully. Those features were standards only because Opera had proposed them a few years earlier and pushed hard to get W3C endorsement.

But there is more. As you know, I think that transcoders such as Novarra , InfoGin, OpenWeb and ByteMobile can be harmful to the mobile ecosystem (particularly when deployed irresponsibly). This feeling is shared by developers, content owners and device/browsers manufacturers alike. The Opera guys used to share it too. Too bad that Opera jumped on the transcoding bandwagon with both feet with 1) OperaMini and, above all, 2) by partnering with ByteMobile to deliver a transcoding solution which can be (and has been) as abusive as the one launched by VodafoneUK in summer 2007.

What happened to their respect for their beloved standards then? What is left of their support for web and innovation when you undermine the standards developers build their mobile applications on? business-driven decisions prevailed, obviously. Those decisions, let me be clear on this point, are legitimate. But please save me the image of the Opera white knight defending humanity against the MS dragon.

In short, let’s beware of those who talk about standards only or partly because it serves their purposes and above all, let’s beware of mandating standard adherence by law.

But there is more (related to what you also mentioned). If you want innovation, you need to go beyond standards at times. Here is an example from the same space: when MSIE 4 shipped in 98, the product was at least 3 years ahead of the competition (Netscape mainly). Many were bitching about MS and its lack of standard adherence, but the fact is that MSIE 4 (and MSIE 5 the following year) could already do Ajax, dynamic CSS, DOM and a lot of stuff we consider standard features today long before the competitors decided to abandon their clunky legacy rendering engine which couldn’t re-flow.

Microsoft gave a really important pulse to the whole browser industry, and current browsers wouldn’t be the way they are, had not MS decided to go beyond standards.

Of course, Microsoft has also been responsible of bending standards in the attempt to weaken them and reinforce its proprietary solutions. There are multiple examples of this. But let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that all the good guys are all on one side, and all the bad guys are on the opposite side.

Luca Passani

Comments

  1. Andy says:

    Opera launched the complaint AFTER Microsoft invaded Standards Norway and subverted the Norwegian standard process to get its OOXML file format adopted. It was a simple PR stunt. Opera firmly believes in openness of standards and feels treatened by Microsoft’s patenting practice.

  2. Ver Noss says:

    Monopolies must behave differently than other companies — this is a cornerstone of how capitalism works. It would have been fine for MS to develop a crappy browser if people had to download and install it just like for other browsers. However, by tying IE to Windows, they make use of a monopoly to force their browser onto unsupecting users.
    Therefore, I think the EU is right in taking on Microsoft. This may also open the door for web standards that havn’t had a chance due to lack of support in IE. For example, SVG may finally see real use on the web.

  3. Ajit Jaokar says:

    Thanks Andy, Ver
    Like I emphasise, I am addressing a very narrow scope of thus discussion i.e. can a company be forced to follow Web standard. I am not addressing the bundling issue(since it is beyond the scope of my understanding)
    Coming back to Web standads though .. forcing a company to follow web standards is a opening can of worms. Web standards are a moving target anyway.
    Secondly, the existance of companies not following web standards is a choice and also a part of the ecosystem
    This is my point. Same with YouTube / Flash.
    Interesting you say it was a PR stunt. Thats how I saw it as well. So, I was surprised to see it come this far
    I believe in the role of the government – increasingly so to get us out of recession. But this is not the way to do so! kind rgds Ajit