MSN, Opera, and Web Standards

A note from the editors: In this special editorial for ALA, Opera CTO Håkon Lie debunks Microsoft’s claim that browser blocking at has anything to do with “web standards.” Though he is hardly an impartial observer, Lie’s argument is worth reading, because it is based on the time–honored method of comparing a product to the claims made for it.

On 24 October 2001, users of Opera and Mozilla found themselves locked out of Microsoft’s MSN site. The next day,
the following statement from Microsoft in defense of the lockout:

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“All of our development work for the new
is … W3C standard,” said Bob Visse, the director of MSN marketing,
referring to the World Wide Web Consortium, which is developing
industry standards for web technologies. “For browsers that we know
don’t support those standards or that we can’t insure will get a
great experience for the customer, we do serve up a page that
suggests that they upgrade to an IE browser that does support the”

Microsoft later announced that it had opened up to accept all browsers. Not exactly. As of 4 November, Opera was still blocked from some pages when identifying itself as Opera – for instance, this MSN Gaming Zone page, which also generates JavaScript errors in Microsoft’s own IE5/Macintosh. Likewise, after the initial protests, Visse modified his views, according to Scot’s Newsletter:

“We apologize for the inconvenience that this has
caused, and we wish to reiterate our strong support for the Web
specifications developed and supported by the World Wide Web
Consortium and the software industry. While it is difficult to be
compliant with every published Internet standard, we focus our
efforts on doing the best job we can to support the latest
recommendations and deliver useful and exciting services for our

Since Microsoft so strongly emphasize their support for W3C
specifications, it is worth checking how their documents comply with
those specifications.

On 31 October, I downloaded the home page on MSN, as well as all the links on that site. As a portal, MSN contains many links pointing to different kinds of services, among them the “love” site, the pet page and Microsoft’s own home page. All in all, there are pointers to 62 documents.

The chart on the following page lists all of them, including the MSN home page itself, making a total of 63 web pages that I dutifully tested for W3C standards–compliance.

In order for a browser to display a document correctly, that
document must be valid. To help web developers create documents that validate, the W3C runs a validating service on the web.

To examine the document, the W3C validator must know what specification the document claims to use. All documents must therefore have a DOCTYPE indicator in the head of the document.

This is not the case on MSN: of the 63 documents tested, only 10 declared what version of HTML they were written in.

There are two main flavors of HTML in use today: HTML4 and
XHTML. Microsoft’s first
for locking out Opera was that:

“We do identify the string from the browser, and the
only issue that we have is that the Opera browser doesn’t support
the latest XHTML standard.”

When checking the documents on MSN, however, “the latest XHTML standard” didn’t seem terribly important to Microsoft – only four of 63 documents claimed to be written in XHTML. (Opera happens to have excellent support for XHTML and compares favorably with Microsoft Internet
Explorer for Windows in this regard. But that’s a topic for
another article.)

Running the documents through the W3C validator was the final step of the study. Given Microsoft’s emphasis on W3C specifications, one
would expect their documents to validate. This was
not the case, and the result was as simple as it was shocking: on the date of the study, none of the 63 documents on MSN’s home page was valid according to W3C specifications.

Given this result, one might conclude that Microsoft is actively
sabotaging the work of web standards and W3C – or at the very least, demonstrating an almost unbelievable lack of competence. Microsoft points to W3C
specifications when explaining why they lock competitors’ browsers out of MSN, yet none of the documents published on MSN follow these W3C specifications.  In any case, it will be harder for Microsoft to blame browser lockouts on standards in the future.

The details#section2

The chart on the following page provides detailed information about each file that was tested, including each file’s source code. {Ed. – Original source files referenced by the chart on the following page may not display correctly (or at all), although they did when this article was new.}

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