Opera: IE8's changes don't let Microsoft off legal hook

But both Mozilla and Opera praise aspects of the new competition

Microsoft Corp.'s rivals have applauded some of what they've seen in the new Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), but the browser maker that has complained to antitrust regulators in Europe said the changes don't address all its concerns.

Earlier this week, Microsoft unveiled Beta 1 of IE8, just days after the company's head of browser development confirmed a turnabout in how IE8 would handle backward compatibility and support Internet standards.

On Monday, Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of the IE group, announced that IE8 would support a new "super standards" mode by default. Previously, Hachamovitch had said the super standards mode would be an option, a decision that raised a ruckus among Web developers. This week's 180-degree turn, he said, showed Microsoft's commitment to Web standards, even if it risked breaking sites designed for older versions of IE.

"The Web gets better when developers spend less time on interoperability [problems] and more time on innovating," said Hachamovitch on Wednesday from the Mix08 Web conference in Las Vegas. "Long term, this is the right thing to do for the Web."

Microsoft's competitors agreed.

Mike Shaver, chief evangelist at Mozilla Corp., the maker of Firefox, called the change "very promising" in a Wednesday post to his blog and said it shows that Microsoft could listen to critics. "Once the conversation [about the super standards mode] was opened to input from the rest of the world's experts on Web content compatibility, they were able to get to a much better decision, and happily that's reflected in the updated plans for IE8," said Shaver.

Hakon Wium Lie, chief technology officer at Opera Software ASA, the Oslo-based company that develops the Opera browser, also gave a thumbs up to IE8.

"My first reaction is positive," said Lie in an e-mail response to questions. "I was relieved to see that IE8 passes Acid2 test [a popular Internet standards test] by default. This is an indication that IE8 is more standards-compliant than its predecessor. Congratulations to the IE8 team!"

But Lie wouldn't let Microsoft or its browser off the legal hook that Opera helped set earlier this year. "It was interesting to see that Microsoft gave a legal reason for their most recent turnaround," Lie said. "Certainly, I believe Opera's filing with the European Commission has influenced Microsoft's decision to do the right thing."

Lie was referring to complaints Opera filed last December with the EC's antitrust agency, the Competition Commission. At the time, Opera charged that Microsoft hindered interoperability by not following accepted Web standards and abused its dominant position in the operating systems market by tying IE to Windows.

In January, the commission announced it was opening formal investigations into Opera's complaint, as well as into another filing related to Microsoft Office.

On Monday, Microsoft's Hachamovitch pitched IE8's change of its super standards mode as the answer to the browser's legal problems, although he didn't name names.

"IE8's default is a demonstration of [Microsoft's new] interoperability principles in action," he said in a post to the IE team's blog. "While we do not believe any current legal requirements would dictate which rendering mode a browser must use, this step clearly removes this question as a potential legal and regulatory issue."

Lie wasn't convinced. "We have brought up several technical issues in IE in our discussions with the commission, and only two of them have been partly addressed," he said. The five issues Lie listed include the following:

  1. Fully complying with Acid2 and Acid3 standards tests
  2. Supporting the specifications underlying the Acid tests
  3. Providing documentation on how IE implements standards
  4. Dropping version targeting
  5. Committing to interoperability by promising to add support for standards that two or more major browsers implement

"IE8, by supporting Acid2 and triggering standards mode like other browsers, partly addresses 1 and 4," said Lie. "But the other points remain."

Mozilla's Shaver also noticed the legal tidbit in Hachamovitch's Monday blog and agreed with Lie that the comments were probably directed at European antitrust regulators. "It's much more likely that they're referencing the Opera suit than that they're talking about Microsoft representatives' previous claims of lawsuit risk stemming from changes in new product versions," said Shaver, referring to comments he made last month about how some Microsoft managers believed they might be financially liable if they made changes to IE that "broke" sites.

But Shaver also lauded Microsoft for seeing the error of its ways. "Bravo and thanks to Microsoft for listening genuinely and making a change that I think will have a very positive effect on standards-based content on the Web," he said.

Lie, though perhaps not as optimistic about what the changes in IE8 will mean in the long term, sounded ready to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt. "I hope that Microsoft will continue to have a constructive attitude, that they will work with other browser vendors to support Acid3 and that they commit to interoperability," Lie said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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