Microsoft Shorts the Web

Give Microsoft executives full credit – they are nothing if not consistent. Everything turns on Windows being the preferred platform for all their software and applications. And this has had dire consequences  for Web applications, tools and their developers. In short, Microsoft is consistently shorting the Web:
1)Microsoft’s infamous  five year freeze on improvements to Internet Explorer and other Web software;
2)Microsoft consistently lagging in browser standards, features, and performance;
3)Microsoft’s IE browser lagging on 10 year old browser standards for which the Web development community has had to provide hacks  and workarounds. Web 2 JavaScript now does much of the heavy standards lifting for Microsoft;
4)Microsoft lagging in the current HTML5 standards setting and implementation;
5)Microsoft constraining the cross platform features of its Silverlight Web media delivery tool [prospective  rival to Adobe’s market dominating Flash Player];
Now to give an idea of how this decade long short-selling of the Web has impacted the development community, I cite Information Week’s David Methvin:

For most of this decade, web developers have been suffering the shortcomings of Internet Explorer. That hasn’t bothered Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) too much, because the company has historically focused on developing “real” applications that run only on Windows and don’t use the browser as a platform. With the new Office web apps, Microsoft might actually have to experience the living nightmare that web app development can be. Yet the company has figured out a way to make things easier: cheat.

Last week, a Microsoft blog entry set out the company’s current thinking about which browsers will be supported by Office Web. The list is short: IE7, IE8, Firefox 3.5, and Safari 4 on Mac. That is an awfully short list, brightened only by the lack of IE6. The blog says “Office Web Apps love your browser,” but I guess the love only applies if your browser is really recent, really popular, or really made by Microsoft.

I don’t know whether to be jealous or angry. Anyone writing real-world web apps knows the non-trivial and vocal group of people out there using IE6, Safari 2.0, Opera, and Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Chrome. Most importantly, what about Firefox 3.0? If a big company chose Firefox over IE a few years ago and wants to use Office Web, they’ll be expected to upgrade their 3.0 installed base to 3.5, which was just released in July 2009. Yet Microsoft plans to support IE7, which shipped way back in October 2006.

For most of this decade, Microsoft hasn’t seemed to have much urgency in supporting and advancing web standards. Although IE8 finally got support for data: URIs, they are still behind in support for HTML5 features like the canvas tag. Even something as simple as the CSS opacity property isn’t yet supported by IE8.

Given the limitations of Internet Explorer, even the improved IE8, it’s a wonder anyone can write a decent web application. Microsoft has a solution to this problem, too: Silverlight. The Microsoft blog entry points out that Silverlight isn’t necessary to make Office Web work, but it will make Office Web work better.

I’d prefer to see Microsoft push aggressively to get IE9 out the door and up to par with the other browsers, rather than leaning on the Silverlight crutch. Companies like Google and Yahoo have managed to build some pretty impressive applications using browser features only, and that seems like the future of web apps. The good news is that at least Microsoft is in the web apps game now, realizing how browser incompatibilities cause misery.

Now to be sure, Microsoft is making some distinct Web gestures. Development of IE8 moves some standards along slowly while new pledges of great security are made. Silverlight is the new replacement for Flash Player on Microsoft sites. Ray Ozzie, a Web proponent nominally succeeded Bill Gates as Chief Software Architect. And Microsoft has a full frontal assault on Cloud Computing with its Azure Web Server system, Live Apps and Cloud Data Centers. But as David points above , all this is in a context that favors Windows and the desktop/laptop as the ‘preferred’ point of interaction. And the quotes are around ‘preferred’ because Microsoft is as much downgrading and proprietizing its Web tools as elevating its Windows and Windows/Web apps – shorting the Web to make its Windows desktop software more attractive. Now if Windows Vista and IE were stellar performers, this would be a legitimate power play. That they are not [and Windows 7 on the performance compatibility and ease of learning sides is also in question] leaves this short … uhh certainly very risky, but maybe naked is precisely the right description.

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