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November 1, 2001 - Vol. 1, Issue No. 16 - Special Edition

By Scot Finnie

Special Edition: More on the Opera vs. MSN Fiasco

Today I stumbled upon several developments relating to the Opera vs. MSN story I reported in yesterday's issue of Scot’s Newsletter.

I thought you'd want to know about them. Many of you have emailed angry comments concerning my conclusions about the fact that Opera and some Mozilla-version users were locked out of Microsoft's MSN portal website last week after Microsoft made changes to the MSN site. The gist seems to be that some of you feel I've been suckered by Microsoft's marketing machine -- or worse. I don't think so, but my hands-on investigation into the issue today has been interesting, to say the last.

For yesterday's issue, I wrote that the Opera block-out was a mistake, not purposeful. I didn't see what was in it for Microsoft to intentionally thwart Opera users. Do you think the company actually believes there's anything good enough on MSN that people would literally switch browsers to go there? Would Microsoft purposely miss out on the opportunity to woo visitors over time? Would it deliberately turn away visitors to its Web portal?

But after reading the "Opera vs. MSN" section in yesterday's SFNL, Opera's CEO, Jon S. von Tetzchner, sent this response to the newsletter, which definitely caught my attention:

"The fact is that Microsoft blocked Opera actively. They searched for the Opera string and any browser having Opera in its identification string was not allowed access. After tremendous pressure from our users and the press, they caved in and let us in. However, there are still sections of MSN that are closed to Opera users, if they decide to let Opera identify itself as Opera. [This refers to an option in Opera's File > Preferences > Connections section. Opera can be set to tell a Web site that it is a different browser, such as Internet Explorer 5.0. ] A good chunk of our users do that -- choose to have Opera identify itself as Opera. And when they do that, they do not get access to, for example, Carpoint. Instead they get this message:

Microsoft Carpoint that contains the latest new- and used-car features cannot be viewed using this browser. If you would like to see what you are missing ... you can upgrade your browser to the latest version of Netscape, or click the icon below to download the latest version of Internet Explorer for free!

Saying that Opera was treated as 'unknown' is definitely not the truth. They were capable of closing the door when Opera was anywhere in the string. Why are they still closing the door on Opera, when they have shown they are quite capable of recognizing Opera and shutting it out?

Why on earth does Microsoft find it necessary to have these kind of messages at all? I hope we will see a change where action matches the words and that Microsoft starts to actively supports standards and works on getting their pages to work with other browsers instead of closing the door.

Opera Software also issued a press release today that links to yesterday's coverage of the fiasco in Scot’s Newsletter, specifically to the comments Bob Visse, MSN's Product Marketing Manager, made to SFNL.

So, this morning I tested Carpoint just as Jon von Tetzchner outlined. He was right. With the IE 5.0 setting in vogue in Opera, you waltz right in to Carpoint. With the Opera identifier in place, you get the obtuse error message he quoted. It sure looks like they're purposefully dissing Opera users, and that tends to make me see red.

I checked in with MSN's Bob Visse to confront him with the facts. I told him about Carpoint (the Opera press release was only just coming out at that point). He said he wasn't aware of it but would contact Carpoint's management and ask them to fix the problem right away. About an hour later he called me back to say the Carpoint issue would be fixed in 2-3 hours. As I test it now, some four hours later, it is fixed.

Opera's press releases of today and earlier raised a lot of good points. I think von Tetzchner rightly calls out Visse and Microsoft for slinging around the bull. The excuses about an "unknown" category and Web standards just made it worse. And I completely agree with the most important point Opera is making right now: "All Web sites should be accessible to all, no matter what browser or operating system they are using."

But after listening patiently to both sides on this issue -- as well as to several SFNL subscribers -- I still don't see intent on Microsoft's part. And I've looked for it. There's no credible motive. As a content developer I've seen first-hand how programmers and producers sometimes make their own decisions about things. It's much easier to design content for one browser than it is to design content for three or four browsers (never mind their different versions). My bet is that the content people grew lazy, arrogant, or both about supporting browsers with smaller market shares. Note that Netscape Navigator 4.7x users -- whose browser has the second largest share -- were still able to visit the MSN site. But let's not confuse a choice of convenience made by people working on the nuts and bolts with a strategic decision made my Microsoft's product management.

That said, I'm not letting Microsoft off the hook. Because it, like every other content maker on the Internet, has a responsibility to ensure common access to its content. I think the company that owns the largest Web browser marketshare is, perhaps, even more responsible on this point than other companies. Because to do otherwise is tasteless -- not to mention really bad PR.

It comes down to this. Sometimes Microsoft is cunning; and sometimes it just does stupid things that everyone thinks were intentionally evil. This one fell into the latter category.

The most important thing users of Opera, Mozilla, and other Web products can do about any kind of content block (or even pages that just don't display properly) is to report the problem to both the site owner and browser maker.

Because I've waded in on this, I'd like to offer some. If you attempt to visit any area of MSN.com, Microsoft.com, or any other major site and you get blocked out because you're using Opera (or another browser), let me know about it. Be sure to send me the URL to the specific page and the make and version number of your browser. I will try to contact the those involved directly.

In case you are wondering, both Opera and IE are SFNL Top Products. They are the only Web browsers I recommend at this point. The SFNL website is designed to accommodate IE 5.0 and higher, Netscape Navigator 4.x, Netscape 6.x and Mozilla, and Opera 5.x under both Windows and Linux. If you find problems on the SFNL website, I'd like the chance to fix them.

Why You Got Scot’s Newsletter Two Days in a Row
It isn't my habit. You shouldn't expect it to start happening a lot in the future. But when I think it's warranted, I will once in a great while send out a special edition. Last time I did it was in December 1999. So for those who didn't like the idea, it's not likely to happen again any time soon.

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