Listening To Reason

random musings about technologies by Andy Norris

20 June 2006

Microsoft and browsers

Chris Wilson from Microsoft has an interesting post about IE7 and web standards, in which he makes a passionate defense of his, and Microsoft's, commitment to moving forward with standards-compliant browsers. It's a good piece, and it's really nice to see that the team at Micorsoft really cares about these things—they had vanished for so long that even the most concerted Microsoft defender had to wonder about them.

The one thing that still makes me wonder about Microsoft's long-term commitment to web standards is the difference between web content and web applications for them. It makes 100% sense for them to support web content producers and consumers as well as they possibly can. Web content is now one of the main reasons people buy computers, and it makes sense to make the experience as good as possible.

What I woonder about, though, is the business case for Microsoft working to support the technologies that enable web applications—AJAX (yes, I know they created AJAX; that's not the point), JavaScript, and everything else that's being used to power a new generation of client-server applications.

If I were Microsoft, I might view these things as inevitable, but I'm not sure I would view them as good for business. After all, Microsoft is built on the idea of desktop applications. Software that runs on top of their operating systems leads people to buy their operating systems. Software that will run on any standards compliant web browser can run happily on a Mac, Linux, or anything else that comes down the road. In addition, some of these web apps are going to start providing an alternative to Microsoft's apps, at least down the road. Anyone who decides that Google Spreadsheet is good enough for their needs is a likely non-customer for Excel.

That's why you see things like the .Net Vista apps in C# 3.0 that are designed to run inside a browser. It's cool that they're supposed to run in Firefox on Windows, but that's still platform lock-in. They might sort of work on Macs if you work on it, but that's hardly ringing support for Macs. And, of course, as far as I can tell, the only chance of them ever running on Linux is if Mono ever gets them working. So these things aren't perfect platform lock-in, but when everything works seamlessly on Windows and requires effort to work anywhere else, that should be good enough for Microsoft.

Now maybe Microsoft doesn't think this way, and everyone really believes in supporting standards-based web applications. Or maybe they simply see them as inevitable, and they want to make the best possible browsing platform, so people will use their software. But with a conflict of interest this obvious, it makes me want to keep a careful eye on them going forward.

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