Diatribes - Computer, Economic & Political

This blog is really just for me. If you find something interesting on it, leave me a comment. If you disagree with something, let me know what and why. In this blog I am just putting some of my thoughts for computers, the economy, politics, and other topics in writing.

08 March 2006

How Microsoft got IE to be the de facto standard

I sent this email to my brother:

You may have seen this on Digg, but it is pretty hilarious. I put together the sequence. Pretty funny stuff.

First watch
this video. Then check this video out. Pretty funny. Lastly this one (its chronological order). Boy that second one must have been a bitter pill to take.

He responded wondering why Microsoft had bailed out their only competitor, who is now looking to eat their lunch. It is a good question really. Well here is my answer.

That was when the internet was just hitting the masses. The standards were out there (for the most part) but still very flexible because there wasn't a large installed base. Microsoft wanted IE to be the defacto standard really bad.

Why did Microsoft care what browser people used?

Operating systems can be replaced by higher level operating systems. BIOS stood for (used to, they changed it in the 90s) basic integrated operating system. BIOS was a full on (but limited) OS. Microsoft figured out how to use BIOS to boot DOS, a higher level OS. Later they figured out how to get DOS to boot Windows. Thus they knew operating systems could be replaced, they'd done it: BIOS > DOS > Windows.

They were afraid the internet was going to do this again. And Netscape would be basically an OS on top of Windows. The problem was this: if everyone develops for Netscape, not for Windows, then Windows doesn't matter (just like a BIOS doesn't matter much now).

Microsoft was terrified that Windows would get built over. Then they couldn't charge much for Windows (because it wouldn't be that important). So they did their darndest to kill Netscape and force IE on everyone else.

Getting rid of the Apple Problem

Macintosh threatened to throw a wrench in their plans. Even if Apple went out of business, someone would buy it up and still offer Macs. Because there was another viable platform, many early developers felt they should work for compatibility with both Mac and Windows. There was no IE for Macintosh and even if there had been, Microsoft needed a way to get Mac users to use it. If IE wasn't default for all major platforms, IE wouldn't be the standard, it would be a standard.1

Luck was on Microsft's side. They had been killing Apple's revenue for sometime and Apple was willing to partner with anyone to survive. For Microsoft it was worth $150 million to make IE the de facto standard that it remains to this day. For Apple is was worth accepting IE to survive to try and fight again.

So what about Netscape?

Tying means using one product to sell another. Tying is like selling a copier and forcing (contractually or with technology) the consumer to get the copier serviced by you as well. This example is an actual case – Kodak did this. Not bundling, that is selling Office rather than Excel or Powerpoint alone. Bundling is fine. Tying is per se illegal (meaning if you are found to be tying, you are wrong, no debate).

I don't think there was any doubt in Microsoft's mind that bolting IE to the OS was "tying." The problem for Microsoft was that permanently bolting IE to Windows (and making it default) was the only way to unseat the current king of the internet, Netscape. It worked. And then they got slapped with an anti-trust suit for guess what... tying.

During the trial a Princeton computer scientist got the Windows code via a court order and found that by removing two lines of code (from the source of Win98) you could get rid of IE. So Netscape presented this in court. Microsoft's rebuttal was a video, showing that by removing these two lines of code Windows crashed. When the prosecutors looked into this they found this was two different videos spliced together. Guess what?

They were found guilty. Judge Penfield Jackson was furious. He'd been annoyed by Bill Gates' deposition. Gates had been ornery and not very helpful, but this put Jackson over the top. So Jackson wrote a scathing decision and Microsoft was supposed to be split into three companies. Because this decision was so harsh when the change of administration came, they pardoned Microsoft.

So Microsoft had won. They got IE to be the standard everyone uses when developing for the web and no penalties for it (if you don't think IE is the de facto standard, make your site incompatible with IE and, unless it is slashdot, don't expect to get much return traffic). Microsoft now has new pressure again – from alternate web browsers and from alternate operating systems. But there is a new savior on the horizon for them – trusted computing. If they succeed with the vendor lock-in trusted computing allows they'll never go out of business.

1 Note: Popularity doesn't make real standards, but it does nicely for de facto standards.


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