Microsoft IE changes premature, say critics

Microsoft Corp. may be unnecessarily forcing developers to rewrite large portions of the Web, say members of the Web development community who fear that the software giant’s plans to bring its Internet Explorer browser in compliance with a recent software patent ruling against the company are premature.

The changes, announced on Oct. 6, were created in response to a US$521 million software patent verdict against Microsoft, won by Eolas Technologies Inc. in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois this August.

A new version of Internet Explorer, expected to be released early next year, will handle dynamic content like RealOne, Macromedia Flash or Apple QuickTime files in a new way designed to “ameliorate or eliminate the impact of the ruling,” according to a Microsoft statement.

Microsoft also issued instructions to Web developers on Monday, advising them to make changes to Web pages that contain this kind of dynamic content or risk presenting their users with dialogue boxes. “If Web developers have not updated their Web pages using the techniques suggested by Microsoft and others, users may see a simple dialogue box before the browser loads the ActiveX control,” the statement said.

“They will have to make changes to those few Web pages that have ActiveX controls or Java applets on them to avoid dialogue boxes on those pages,” explained Michael Wallent, the general manager of Microsoft’s Windows client platform group.

Wallent believes that the majority of pages in question are now being used to deliver advertising, and that the advertising community will be quick to make the necessary changes.

He downplayed the potential effects of the changes, predicting that the “vast majority” of affected Web sites would be switched over before the new version of Internet Explorer became available. “If you exclude Web advertising, you’re not looking at a huge number of sites,” he added.

But others argued that asking the Web community to re-tag every example of dynamic content on the Internet before the Eolas verdict had even been appealed was unreasonable.

“I think they should at least be waiting until the courts rule,” said Rich Green, the vice-president of developer platforms at Sun Microsystems Inc. “It seems premature to be rolling out change in a case where the final answer has not been reached.”

Making the changes would not be a huge technical challenge for the Atomic Mail LLC, a Columbus, Ohio company that offers a Web-based e-mail application that uses flash animation, said Art Krumsee, the company’s chief technical officer. But that is because the Atomic Mail application has only one HTML page that loads Flash, he explained.

However, the work required to review and modify any site with extensive flash animation would be a “notable expense” for some companies, he said.

“It’s only a minor change, but if there are hundreds of millions of pages out there that have to be re-authored, that’s a lot of work,” said a source familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Microsoft’s decision to ask Web developers to make widespread changes rather than simply paying a fee to Eolas for use of its software patents was simply a way of off-loading the cost of the Eolas suit on to Web developers, the source suggested.

Continuing to use the techniques covered in the Eolas patent is not an option for Microsoft, said Wallent. “It wouldn’t be prudent for us to just sit back and wait for the legal process to play out while the bills keep accruing.” If Microsoft continues to ship Internet Explorer without these changes, not only will it be liable for somewhere between US$150 million and US$200 million in court-ordered restitution to Eolas per year, it could also be found guilty of “willful infringement” of the Eolas patent, and that could put Microsoft in contempt of court, Wallent said.

Microsoft may be moving too quickly with its Internet Explorer fix, said Dale Dougherty, a publisher with O’Reilly & Associates, Inc., who has worked with Microsoft and members of the Web community on the Eolas issue, but the company has a valid business case for its actions. “Obviously they have money on the line and the rest of us don’t,” he said. “I think it’s a fair comment that…Microsoft is rushing to a solution here, but I understand why they might rush.”