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Microsoft is jumping the gun on Explorer changes, say web developers

Microsoft's decision to rewrite Internet Explorer software to make the browser comply with a recent software patent ruling against it is premature, web developers have claimed.

The company had told web developers to retag every example of dynamic content on the internet after losing a $521m software patent case against Eolas Technologies in August.

A new version of Internet Explorer, which is expected to be released early next year, will handle dynamic content like RealOne, Macromedia Flash or Apple QuickTime files in a new way designed to "ameliorate or eliminate the impact of the ruling", according to Microsoft.

On Monday, Microsoft filed motions to grant it a new trial, citing that it had "substantial" grounds for reconsideration. The motions are prerequisites for appealing the case to the US Court of Appeals, which the company has pledged to do.

However, on the same day it also issued instructions to web developers, advising them to make changes to web pages containing this kind of dynamic content or risk presenting their users with dialogue boxes.

"If web developers have not updated their web pages using the techniques suggested by Microsoft and others, users may see a simple dialogue box before the browser loads the ActiveX control," the statement said.

 "They will have to make changes to those few web pages that have ActiveX controls or Java applets on them to avoid dialogue boxes on those pages," explained Michael Wallent, the general manager of Microsoft's Windows client platform group.

Wallent believed that most of the pages in question are now being used to deliver advertising, and that the advertising community will be quick to make the necessary changes.

He downplayed the potential effects of the changes, predicting that the "vast majority" of affected websites would be switched over before the new version of Explorer became available. "If you exclude web advertising, you're not looking at a huge number of sites," he added.

But others argued that asking the web community to retag every example of dynamic content on the Internet before the Eolas verdict had even been appealed was unreasonable.

"I think they should at least be waiting until the courts rule," said Rich Green, the vice president of developer platforms at Sun Microsystems. "It seems premature to be rolling out change in a case where the final answer has not been reached."

Some developers said Microsoft's decision to ask web developers to make widespread changes rather than simply paying a fee to Eolas for use of its software patents was a way of offloading the cost of the Eolas suit on to the development community.

Continuing to use the techniques covered in the Eolas patent is not an option for Microsoft, said Wallent. "It wouldn't be prudent for us to just sit back and wait for the legal process to play out while the bills keep accruing."

If Microsoft continues to ship Internet Explorer without these changes, not only will it be liable for somewhere between $150m and $200m a year in court-ordered restitution to Eolas, it could also be found guilty of "wilful infringement" of the Eolas patent, and that could put Microsoft in contempt of court, Wallent said.

Robert McMillan writes for IDG News Service


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