Microsoft reaffirms its support for Web standards--Or does it?

In response to criticism from a Web standards group that its upcoming Internet Explorer 5.5 Web browser is ignoring open standards so that it can more easily conform to proprietary enhancements, Microsoft Corporation issued a short statement this week reaffirming its commitment to Web standards. But the statement, which was not publicized in any way, doesn't really address the issues in any detail, instead offering up the simple explanation that the criticisms are simply untrue. As any Web developer can tell you, however, IE 5.5 is clearly designed to push a proprietary agenda, and I even noted my discomfort with the numerous programming enhancements in this release back in December, when the first public beta was issued.

"Microsoft is proud that the Internet Explorer 5.0 technologies in Windows are the most standards-compliant browsing technology shipping today," the company notes in a precisely worded statement that is designed to ignore Netscape 6, which is far more compliant to standards but not yet shipping in final form. "The assertions put forward in these criticisms \[of IE 5.5\] are not true. Microsoft develops all of its products--including the Internet Explorer 5.5 technologies--with all of its customers in mind: Web developers, corporate users, and end users. Standards compliance is one of many ways to add value to the Internet browsing technologies for our customers, and we will continue to expand and improve these efforts."

The comment about adding value is, of course, interesting. Because the number one way that the company typically adds value to any technology is to make it work more smoothly with Windows, its core platform, and this often comes at the expense of cross-platform compatibility (Witness Microsoft proprietary changes to Java, which landed it in court). And IE 5.5 contains numerous proprietary enhancements that are specific to Windows, and none of these are addressed directly by this statement.

"Microsoft will continue to develop and improve support for industry standards, as well as advance other exciting new Web technologies and continue to be an active and constructive player in the standards process," the company says, somewhat revealingly. The comment about "advancing other exciting new Web technologies" is, of course key. "Enriching the overall Internet experience for all of our customers remains the primary focus of our efforts in developing best-of-breed Internet technologies."

So there you have it: Microsoft's primary focus is to improve Internet Explorer, even if that means subverting standards compliance, because this will make the browsing experience better for its customers. This is, of course, this same argument that the company publicly uses for the bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows, though it was revealed during the antitrust trial that the real reason for this integration was the destruction of Netscape Communications. Whether proprietary improvements to Internet Explorer 5.5 are that nefarious remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Microsoft's statement of support for Web standards is simply a public admission that they are adding proprietary features as charged, and nothing more

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