If there was a functioning market for web browsers and operating systems, the past few weeks would have seen two announcements from Microsoft. After a firestorm of criticism from the web design community about Internet Explorer 8's misguided mode switching proposal, Redmond would have publicly backed down. Second, Microsoft would have bowed to 90,000 users demanding that Windows XP continue to be sold.
There were no such announcements. Why? Because Microsoft, with its dominating position in the web browser and operating system markets, acts like a monopoly.
A monopoly doesn't have to consider its customers' wants or needs. In a functioning market, vendors must consider such things in order to compete successfully. But the market isn't functioning.
Microsoft's failure to respond to its customers' outcry shows that it is time to call on established antitrust laws that allow governments to impose sanctions on a vendor that has a dominant position in a market. The purpose of these sanctions is to ensure competition and innovation and thereby create a market in which consumers are heard.
Recently, the European Commission opened several investigations into Microsoft's dominant position. As a regulatory body, they could decide to impose sanctions and while Microsoft might ignore their frustrated customers, they would have a harder time ignoring the European Commission.
So, what should the European Commission demand from Microsoft?
In the area of web browsers, Opera Software has proposed a specific kind of remedy - that Microsoft only be allowed to distribute standards-compliant browsers. Microsoft's IE is bug-ridden and the company, despite its vast resources, has shown little interest in fixing problems that cost web designers time and sleep. IE dominates the web due to its being bundled with Windows. This forces web designers to prioritize coding for IE. Coding for standards-compliant browsers becomes a secondary consideration.
Microsoft is keenly aware of this and therefore has little interest in improving their support for standards. They will never become standards compliant unless forced by someone in a position to demand a change, something that users and customers are not. Requiring standard compliance would greatly lessen Microsoft's monopolistic stranglehold in the web browser market, would delight web developers everywhere and would, ironically, make IE a better product.
So, if the web community could impose requirements on Microsoft's browser, what would they be? Here is my list:
1. Support Acid2 and Acid3, by default. Acid2 is a well-known test and the follow-up Acid3 is being finalized. The tests must be passed by default. That is, users or authors should not have to select "standards mode", which is guaranteed to minimize the impact of standards.
2. Support the underlying specifications. The Acid tests are written to help browser vendors who act in good faith, and they do not guarantee compliance with the underlying specifications. Microsoft must commit to implementing the underlying specifications of the Acid2 and Acid3 tests.
3. Provide documentation. Lack of documentation on how IE implements standards has been a problem for web developers. For each specification Microsoft implements, it must provide a detailed list of limitations, bugs and extensions. The list must be publicly available.
4. Drop mode switching. Documents that trigger standards mode in IE6 or IE7 (or almost standards mode, as per the documentation in Wikipedia and on Microsoft's site) shall continue to trigger standards mode in the future. No new magic switches can be introduced.
5. Commit to interoperability. It is important to ensure that Microsoft remains committed to supporting web standards, even beyond Acid2 and Acid3. If two or more major web browsers, in official shipping versions, add standards-related functionality that's generally considered useful to the progress of the web, and described in a publicly available specification, Microsoft must add the same functionality.
Microsoft will surely claim that it's impossible for them to develop a browser that complies with the proposed requirements. However, other browsers have played by these rules for years. If Microsoft can't live up to the standards of the web, I suggest they leave the browser business.
What would be on your list?®
Biography Håkon Wium Lie is chief technology officer of Opera Software. Before joining Opera in 1999, he worked at W3C where he was responsible for the development of Cascading Style Sheets, a concept he proposed while working with Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1994.