Last week I was writing about the toothlessness of the proposed final agreement between Microsoft and the US Department of Justice (DoJ). Just why it is so ineffectual has been made only too clear by a recent sequence of events.
Naively, you might expect Microsoft to be on its best behaviour at a time when the US courts are about to hand down a condign punishment for past misdeeds. But not a bit of it. At just the moment when it was hashing out the tepid final agreement with the DoJ in which it roughly promised not to engage in its earlier anti-competitive activities, Microsoft has been trying out a new one.
The story began with yet another redesign of its MSN portal. Through relentless and presumably costly marketing, this has become one of the more popular destinations on the Web.
So Microsoft's decision effectively to block access to some rival browsers was provocative, to say the least. For here, it seemed, was the world's most powerful software company attempting to use its online muscle to force users to convert to Internet Explorer.
Not surprisingly, many of those users were deeply unhappy. They made their feelings known and Microsoft seemed to respond (see, for example, the comments from MSN's director of marketing, Bob Visse).
However, Opera, one of the companies whose browser was being blocked, proceeded to poke serious holes in his comments. As it points out, Visse's statements that Microsoft had erroneously classified some browsers like Opera as "unknown", was untrue.
One of the interesting features of Opera is that it can masquerade as different browsers. When it pretended to be Internet Explorer, it gained access to MSN; but in its native Opera form, it was blocked. Clearly, MSN was actively watching out for browsers that identified themselves as Opera.
Visse also tried to blame these other browsers for not following the World Wide Web Consortium's standards, implying that it was their own fault if they could not read the MSN pages.
Unfortunately, as Opera points out in its press release, the lie to this argument is given by the fact that when the MSN opening page at www.msn.com/ is run through the W3C's own official validator, it fails miserably.
Moreover, just to rub salt in the wound, Opera has put together a press release written in the latest XHTML form of HTML, and points out that Internet Explorer is incapable of displaying this correctly - unlike the Opera browser.
Although this may seem much ado about nothing, there are some important issues at stake. One is whether these moves were a deliberate act of kite-flying, a testing of the waters to see whether anyone cared. If it were, this would be serious, since it would suggest that Microsoft is keen to increase Internet Explorer's already dominant market share in every way possible, including some dubious ones.
An alternative explanation is that some coders within Microsoft did this off their own bat. This is perhaps the least sinister explanation, but even here there are worrying aspects, because it suggests that the Microsoft management is unable to control its own cowboy programmers. This, in its turn, is highly problematic for users since it would mean that all kinds of backdoors and security weaknesses could be left in the code by Microsoft personnel who might one day exploit them for their own, unofficial purposes.
The other important point that this whole episode underlines is the rise of Opera as the "other" browser. Just as Microsoft's increasingly virulent attacks on GNU/Linux and Apache marked the arrival of the open source, so MSN's anti-Opera shenanigans indicates that Microsoft now sees it as a serious threat.
Given that the new version 6.0 of Opera is even better than its predecessors, and addresses most of the previous deficiencies of that product, this threat can only grow.
Next week: Amazon revisited