Microsoft might be closer to a compromise with browser rival regarding Internet Explorer on Windows, but access to key online services for PCs could be the next hurdle.
Opera Software chief executive told The Reg he welcomed Microsoft’s offer last month to give European PC users a choice of browsers on Windows, but he warned of "problems" if rival browsers don't get equal access to crucial sites that help keep users' PCs secure and updated.
Meanwhile, Jon von Tetzchner noted there’s no reason why Microsoft’s offer of choice on browsers to European customers cannot be extended to PC users in the rest of the world.
Von Tetzchner was speaking to The Reg ahead of Microsoft’s Patch Tuesday update for IE this week that marks a departure from the traditional round up of fixes and patches by including a change apparently intended to satisfy European and US regulators.
The patch, due today, would no longer let IE set itself as a user’s default browser using Express Settings during an update if the user has another browser installed as their default.
Opera lodged a complaint with European regulators in 2007 that went further than the scope of Tuesday’s patch. The complaint alleged the very act of bundling IE with Windows in the first place had hurt competition in countries of the European Union.
It asked the Commission to force Microsoft to unbundle IE or carry alternative browsers pre-installed on the desktop. Part of Microsoft’s latest proposed settlement is to let users pick the browser they want via a ballot screen, a move Von Tetzchner said he likes in principle.
But a deeper issue is the level of integration between Windows and IE, and the functions and windows inside the operating system that would fire up IE.
As part of its proposed settlement, Microsoft has offered to open up the Windows APIs used by IE, a move that could put rivals to IE on a level playing field with Microsoft's browser.
But von Tetzchner noted that integration would be meaningless unless rival browsers also got equal access to online sites such as Windows Update and Microsoft Update for patches and fixes - or Windows Live OneCare, Microsoft's re-launched security service.
It's not yet clear whether the APIs Microsoft has offered would open up Windows so rival browsers could download and install things like security updates.
"I’m looking at the basics here, like being able to access the Microsoft network or the developer network, to access and get upgrades to the operating system," von Tetzchner told The Reg. "If they have sites and content out there you need to access to use the operating system in a meaningful way, and it's web based and that doesn’t work - that’s a problem."
Von Tetzchner didn’t elaborate on what kind of "problem" but instead sounded a note of optimism on Microsoft’s recent willingness to reach a practical settlement with regulators on IE in Windows.
"If you’d have asked how many people think Microsoft would make a proposal like this to the commission two years ago, I don’t think you’d find many people would think that," von Tetzchner said. "I haven’t seen signs of Microsoft becoming a different company. What I’m seeing here is they are saying: ‘OK we want to find a solution’… they understand they have a problem and they want to find a solution that will keep them inside the law."
In its 2007 complaint, Opera also called on Microsoft to support open web standards from web-authoring communities like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
With a potential settlement in the air on bundling, Von Tetzchner said Microsoft had taken a step in the right direction on standards in IE 8, but there is more Microsoft can do.
He claimed IE 8 complicates web development because developers and browser rivals must support the new IE’s rendering engine, plus rendering for older versions of IE. He wants Microsoft to make a clean break with the past, believing developers would follow rather than continue to maintain increasingly dated versions of the browser.
"If Microsoft were to have standards mode out there you’d find relatively quickly people would move over, but if they don’t have to, the won’t move so quickly. If you have a site and it stops working in IE you’ll fix it. A fair amount of the current users will move over to IE 8," von Tetzchner said.
He said he hoped Microsoft would join the current race among browser vendors implement web standards.
IE 8 supports CSS 2.1 from the W3C but it does not implement the emerging HTML 5 standard. Micosoft's rivals - Mozilla, Chrome and Apple, for example - have put HTML 5’s geo-location APIs in their browsers presumably to target users on the move.
Vendors have always jockeyed over support for emerging standards with companies picking the parts that suit them most at a given time and contributing to the parts of standards that suit their corporate objectives. HTML 5 has proved no exception.
SVG, for example, is supported in Opera, Chrome, and Firefox while it was a candidate for inclusion in HTML 5 to provide a graphics component. That’s now been dropped thanks to a bout of standards politics. Microsoft, meanwhile, has danced around SVG as it pushes its own, proprietary answer for browser-based graphics with Silverlight.
Von Tetzchner said, though, he believes the industry is moving in the same direction in terms of full support for web standards, but Microsoft needs to take more of a stand.
"Where we are going is if we implement it [a part of a spec] and Mozilla implements it you can be quite sure Apple will implement it, too. We are moving overall in the same direction. I hope Microsoft will join the battle of being the first to implement a particular feature," Opera's chief said. ®