The Grand Deception:The Accomplices

In order to commit a protracted crime of deceit you have to have some accomplices, people that explicitly aid and abate the fraudulence and fleecing or that turn a blind eye. This has been the case in the IT industry. But before we get to the crime we have to get to the promises.

I am reading the excellent book, Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML by Elizabeth Freeman and Eric Freeman. In the book, the writers spend over 1/4 of the pages selling the notion that use of strict HTML 4.01 and XHTML is highly useful for Web developers. The authors give the following reasons for going to XHTML:
1)XHTMLs strict syntax allows accessibility and aural screen readers and other browsers for the visually and otherwise impaired to more more easily consume Web content. The Reality. First and foremost, the difficulty is with the screen reader products, none of which honor aural style sheets, and few of which pay any attention at all to CSS standards. Many of the screen readers appear to use Internet Explorers DOM api to let IE tell them what it sees. Talk about listening to the blind men describe an elephant! Now we know.
2)XHTML is future-proofing my Web pages to take advantage of all the latest and greatest browser advances to come. My pages are likely to work on mobile device and a variety of browsers. The Reality is here and here. It is summarized by the following remark“Sadly, the current state of mobile browser support for XHTML/CSS makes the web standards battle that raged fiercely a couple years ago look like a cakewalk.”
3)XHTML can be extended to include new markup. For instance, there are already extensions for vector graphics and mathematical formulas. The Reality on MathML is here and SVG is here. The one common denominator ? – IE browser does not support either standard natively and in the case of the MathML plugin is well behind the standard. In contrast, Firefox, Opera and Safari have substantial if not complete native implementations for both standards.
4)XHTML is becoming the language of choice for browsers on mobile devices and cell phones. In the future, XHTML is going to let us pick and choose the parts of the language we want to support in each mobile device as well. The Reality. This is a prescription for disaster and the disarray we have already cited has left an opening for Flash, Java, and .NET tools to gain traction. The result is that Web development on mobile devices is churning and now turning away from W3C standards towards distinctly proprietary solutions.
5)XHTML can be read by our existing applications that already understand how to read XML. The Reality. This is the least weak of all the propositions; but there are 3 big flies in the ointment. First, as can be seen in this report, all browsers are well short of supporting DOM 3, DOM 2 (with its important XML Namespace routines) has best support from Mozilla/Gecko and least support from IE/Trident and the situation is true again for basic DOM 1. Next support for the JavaScript E4X extensions which considerably simplify XML parsing and processing in JavaScript have just been implemented in Firefox 1.5; but look like they have been omitted from the upcoming IE7. Finally Microsoft has excused itself from Xpath 2 support and is wavering on a number of other XML standards including Open Document Format.
6)There is already a lot of data and information written in XML, and it is more easily transformed into XHTML than to HTML. So we will be able to get all that information on the Web more easily with XHTML. The Reality. The first proposition is largely true. But it certainly does not imply or justify the second. The simple fact of the matter is that AJAX/XMLHTTPResponse and other XML savvy routines used right now simply do not require XHTML and work fine in POHTML-Plain Ordinary HTML.
7)XHTML gives us the benefits of XML (which is great for storing large structured document collections)along with the benefits of HTML, such as CSS for creating presentations. The Reality. There are some real cautions about using XML in performance demanding situations. And the record for CSS support by Internet Explorer is the worst among browsers – yet IE continues to hold 80% market share and pollute the standard.

So what we have here are a series of overly optimistic if not downright sugar-coated promises about the state of adoption of Web standards and what those standards will be able to deliver for Web Developers and users. Now in a book that engages readers for its hip, zesty and honest-questioning style, why such a saccharine approach ? Why a rosy and unrealistic assessment for how adoption of critical Web standards is going. Read the book and one would think that Web 2.0 was right on schedule, not a glitch to be seen, not a trade-off to be made, and all Web parties row, row, rowing together towards Web Progress, our most important product.

This is the Great Deception, large parts of Web standards stand on very shaky ground. With all the clamoring over Web 2.0, Web 1.0 may buckle like a house of cards. And there is one IT vendor which would shed no tears if many W3C and other Web standards faltered. In fact, some would argue they would profit greatly if they could make it so.

Le grand trompe- l oeil – The Great Deception

There is one company which would like to preserve this myth of the whole industry working inevitably towards Web standards – the great standards breakers, Microsoft. Microsoft has been dedicated at its highest levels since the emergence of the Web in the early 1990s to thwarting, polluting and otherwise sabotaging open and interoperable Web standards. And in the process of doing so, Redmond has characterizesd itself as a unfairly portrayed or misunderstood player in the Web world. But the record speaks for itself:
-tried to establish its own alternate Internet with MSN and directing all Windows 3.x and 95 users to it with exclusive desktop icon
-in 1997 destroyed Netscape and host of other nascent browser and Web server vendors by saying IE browser and IIS Web server would be “free for perpetuity” and rushing to market attractive but profoundly unsafe/unreliable features in both products. Paid $1.3 billion to AOL for predatory pricing. Shortcomings in IIS and IE unleashed a wave of security breeches that continues to this day. In 2002 , completely rewrote IIS finally closing down the bulk of security problems there. Compensation for billions of users affected – none but the promise of Trustworthy Computing. Finally in 2005 IE was promised to be upgraded with more than security fixes before the release of Vista Longhorn. Footnote: perpetually free IIS cannot be found as a free download anywhere on Microsofts websites.
-in making peace with a faltering Netscape and in assurances to corporate shops, Redmond promised to adhere to and implement W3C standards. Nine years later those W3C standards have yet to be delivered. Yet Microsoft continues to use in IE high risk Activex components which they have long been warned of their security hazards.
-in 1997 Microsoft broke contract and unilaterally changed standard Java libraries, classes, methods and even reserved words and added new commands. The aim was to establish Microsoft as co-developers of Java or ruin it in the Windows-Web client context. After Sun sued, Redmond chose the latter. Redmond continues to distribute a Java VM that is roughly 5-6 versions behind the current standard on all versions of Windows. Redmond has created not one but three variants on Java: J++, J# (which is supposed to supersede J++) and C# which is Microsofts official clone of Java. This is all perfectly legal, in April 2004 Microsoft paid Sun $2B to settle all pending Java litigation and preserve the status quo – Redmond could and does continue to pollute Java on the desktop.
-in 2000 the last non-security related upgrade to IE was delivered. This upgrade fell short on JavaScript, DOM, CSS, and HTML promised standards below rival browsers of the era. Meanwhile proprietary extensions to JavaScript, DOM, HTML and XML were continuing to appear in all Microsoft development software. The company also abruptly stopped all DHTML developments. There is no W3C compliance or validation feature in any of Microsofts web development software in contrast with competitors like Adobe, Macromedia, Oracle and others. This software would not only flag non-standards compliance but would actively grey out and prevent users from deploying such options when they turned on the approriate Web standards selection setting.
-in 2005 , the latest IE7 standards implementation falls way short of expectations. Meanwhile a whole array of standards which were so brightly hailed as being imminent in the HTML Head First Book have been held in Limbo because Microsoft stopped all feature development on IE since 2000. This means such promising standards as XForms, E4x in JavaScript, SVG-Scalable Vector Graphics, DOM 2 and 3 standards, JPEG 2000 and PNG image standards, SMIL and many others have been stalled and stonewalled because Microsofts ownership of upto 95% browser has in effect made them absolute gatekeepers on the client side development of Web standards.
-Finally in the arena of XML standards, XML.com writer Kendall Grant Clark has been very prescient about his prognosis on Microsoft support of XML in Office and standards and what it means to XML in general. And so sure enough Microsoft is not supporting OASIS Open Document Format but rather insists on its own standard, Office Open, which it has shuffled off to its standards organization, ECMA. This despite the diverse organizations such as IBM, Novell, Intel, Adobe, Sun and others supporting Open Document Format. So once again, if Microsoft gets its way, it will be in a position to hold up Office data exchange and interoperability advances as effectively as it has done in the Web browser field. Now Microsoft is not needlessly malvolent but neither does it take kindly to any threats to the $10 billion++ highly profitable revenues stream from Office.

Microsofts Win-Win Standards Strategy

Since roughly the early 1990s the phrase “win-win” has all but disappeared from Microsofts PR. There is a simple reason for this – Microsoft is consistently striving for a dominant market position in all the markets it participates in – where dominant is 90% or greater. These are zero-sum positions which means for Microsoft to win just about everybody else in the market has to lose. And Microsoft has achieved that share in Office, OS desktop, Windows development tools, and Windows Web browser markets among others. But zero-sum leaves little room for win-win situations. If you look at the technical merit, past and current price/performance and level of current innovation for each of the four above mentioned Microsoft product lines, there is even less room for “win-win” situations – particularly in these maturing markets.

So Microsoft needs to control and shape innovation in all of these markets. One of the ways to do so is through setting the standards in the key technologies controlling the market. And with 90% market share and a very robust R&D budget, Microsoft is largely able to do so. But it is at the boundaries and interfaces – think the Web, data interchange, networking, authentication, software services where users and organizations are making largely discretionary decisions – allocating more or less monies to Microsoft products that the company especially wants to control. But it is precisely these standards and innovations that are the hardest to manipulate.

So Microsoft adopts a “win-win for Microsoft” standards strategy. It is simple; if Microsoft can secure standards such that they are amenable to its maintaining market share – that is a win, do nothing. If Redmond cannot control standards to its liking at these interfaces, then use its dominant positions on the desktop/in the browser/in basic desktop apps to stall and thwart any “unacceptable” standards. This is precisely what Redmond has been doing for the past 7 years in Web development , use of Java on the client as Web interface and 12 years on desktop application data interchange. If standards processes absolutely breakdown, that is a win too – just so long as Microsoft does not get branded the intransigent and unreasonable player. But Microsoft has an instant defense for that too. It can cite the fact that as largest market share player, it should have proportionally more share in the standards decisions, and since it stands to lose too much, in all conscience to its shareholders, it cannot accede to these unreasonable standards. And then Microsoft can offer nothing in the case of a whole slew of W3C and Web standards or its defacto standard as in the case of Open Office XML – take it or leave it. And if the market leaves it, as noted above, that is a win too because Microsofts 90%++ market positions and vast cash horde give it a big lead even against superior technology in eventually establishing its defacto standards and or new 90%++ market positions.

The Accomplices

As noted this is a Grand Deception. To accomplish it, Microsoft needs some accomplices. Redmond has 3 major ones. First, is the trade press. In doing research for this article, the following IT journals were individually searched: ADT magazine, Business Week Online, Computerworld, CNET, eWeek, Forbes Online, Informit, Infoworld, Information Week, Internet Week, Intelligent Enterprise, PCMagazine, PCWorld, Techweb, XML.com, and WebReference. Most had between 1-5 articles about the topics like SVG support, JavaScript E4X, XML in Office, and other topics discussed in this article. But most of these were just tips and tutorials on the underlying technology. Among hundreds of articles less than 10 mentioned the ongoing delay in support for standards by Microsoft. In contrast, the trade press were quick to comment in abundance on and/or criticize Apples support for new Intel chip, the launch glitches of Firefox 1.5, or the travails of SaaS-Software as a Service. As you can see from the links above , there were some excellent articles, analysing what and why Microsoft was stalling on Web and XML standards. In contrast, in the blog world these issues were hot topics that got some radical but also come great and balanced coverage.

I found this to be very surprising given the impact of Microsofts actions on the trade press readers. For example, Web developers must tack on15-35% more time developing and debugging specialized code that detects the IE browser and then provides workarounds for its missing DOM, JavaScript and CSS features. Likewise graphic artists are missing tremendous opportunities with lack of JPEG2000, PNG, and SVG in Internet Explorer. But most telling, reviews of the beta of Microsofts IE7 applied kid glove or “we will wait and see” for Microsofts largely still missing updates to even old CSS, DOM, and HTML standards – forget E4X, XForms, and SVG which are now on board competitive browsers.

The second accomplice has been the ISV community. Now this is patently strange because all of them must do the work to meet W3C and other Web standards, while allowing Microsoft a free lunch on many. Some like Adobe, Corel, PhotoImpact have to fill the breech by providing plugins to Internet Explorer and Office products to enable SVG, JPEG2000, and other Microsoft-missed standards. Or take IBM, Oracle, Sybase, Borland and others who did nothing to support Sun when Microsoft attacked Suns Java. Everyone of these players had already profited mightily from the addition of Java to their product line. Some like IBM with Weblets and Borland with its desktop Java database lost potentially large markets with Microsofts pollution of Java on the desktop. Since these major players backed down – standards organizations like W3C, OASIS, ECMA and others have barely raised a peep about Microsoft non-compliance and/or delays. It almost adds up to an abusive relationship such that Steve Balmers throwing a tantrum and promising to destroy Google or Ray Ozzie, Microsofts new CTO, citing what happened to Netscape could easily happen to equally ambitius Web 2.0 startups – are not simple hyperbole but rather deliberate “pissings on the territory”.

The third accomplice have been users, like the 70%++ readers of this weblog, who still use that security trap and standards deficient IE browser. How and why after 7 years of a continuing stream of security, reliability, and now feature problems, users and their organizations still cling to IE is beyond this reviewer. This is doubly true considering the time to download and install Firefox is less than the time required to get the latest security patch (and you can be assured there a lot more patches coming) for IE.

What Can Be Done

There are 3 fairly simple things that can be done to break the abusive relationship. First and formost is to switch browsers. Do not use the current IE browser or wait for the major shortcomings on standards and features that will be the IE7 browser. Can you imagine what happens if Microsofts Internet Explorer market share shrinks below 30% ? A lot of monopoly power on the desktop just vanishes. Microsoft has had to be responsive in the Web and Application server marketplace because Apache continues to hold 65-75% marketshare and Linux is a growing presence.

Second, do not blithely renew upcoming Software Assurance contracts with Microsoft. Remember you have options – lots of open source and lower cost options – low cost terminal workstations, Open Office, and a growing array of much lower cost commercial and open source software. Once you sign up, EULA precludes just about any recourse in the event of Microsoft failing to deliver(ever happen to you?).

Demand better of Microsoft. See that Microsoft delivers on at least thrice made security, reliability, and interoperability promises. Make Microsoft more responsive to your needs and requirements. Get assurances on software levels of service – and then if Microsoft falls short then demand that they provide free developer support to make it so. Back this up by taking 10-35% of your Software Assurance seats off of Microsoft and see if Corel or Open Office or ASaaSPs can offer competitive services. Finally do not commit to Vista without getting performance, security and reliability guarantees. Because of SaaS, virtual machines, Application Service Providers, price/performance superior competitors (remember, in its monopoly markets, Microsoft is now the high price vendor)and Open Source – the balance of power is swinging in your favor because you have viable alternatives and options. After taking years of Microsoft induced problems of reliability, security and rising costs – demand more, lots more from Redmond than promises, promises, promises.

Footnote: See just below the BubbleShare article for what can happen when standards are adhered to. This is AJAX technology, mothballed by Microsoft, resurrected by others and starting to revolutionize the Web interface.

(c)JBSurveyer 2006 – Reasoned comments should be directed here; heat and hate should be held for Hell.