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DOJ ruling against Microsoft impacted browsers little

Joab Jackson | May 11, 2011
Perhaps it is ironic that the U.S. government antitrust oversight of Microsoft expires on the very same week that Google unveiled its Chromebook.

The idea behind Netscape "wasn't necessarily ahead of its time, but it was ahead of the infrastructure required to adequately support it," noted Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT.

In order to deliver rich Web interactively, and perhaps extend the need for Windows, Microsoft tied Internet Explorer to the underlying Windows platform through technologies such as ActiveX. This was not unusual: Other service providers, such as America Online, enhanced their websites with proprietary add-ons as well. It was a necessity because the supporting Web standards from the W3C did not encompass advanced functionality--such as support for video--that Web surfers wanted.

Since those days, however, Web browser makers--even Microsoft itself--have moved in the direction of adding rich content through JavaScript, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), HTML5 and other platform-neutral standards.

"Browsers are far more standards-compliant [today] than they were in 1998, but the bar wasn't set very high in those days," Gustafson said. By relying on standards, browsers could offer richer experiences while relying less on the underlying platform.

Microsoft tied Explorer too closely to Windows, the DOJ finally concluded, as part of a broad judgment against the software giant. Under the subsequent settlement program, finalized in 2002, Microsoft agreed to, among other things, make it easier for desktop-computer builders and end-users to specify the default browsers on their computers.

Today, about 55 percent of all Web surfing is done through Internet Explorer, according to Web management services firm Net Applications. In contrast, in 2001, Internet Explorer was used over 90 percent of the time, according to various calculations.

Many doubt that the subsequent proliferation of browsers, and the associated richer Web standards, came about due to this forced openness on the desktop, however.

"I'm not sure it can be tied to that. To me, the consent decree seemed more about business and competition than it was about standards," Gustafson said.

"I'm not sure that the general standards-compliance of browsers can be traced to the decree so much as it can be to factors driving the continuing evolution of users' online experience," King agreed.

Nonetheless, today's Web browsing experience is far richer. And if Chromebook, which doesn't have an internal hard drive, is a success, it will be due in part to the wide variety of platform-neutral Web applications available today.

"We will have a better idea of the importance and the effectiveness of the consent decree as we observe Microsoft's behavior over the coming months and years," Mozilla's Baker said.


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