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Embrace, Extend, Extinguish on the browser?

Posted by pbrittan on October 9, 2003 at 6:31 AM PDT

Is Microsoft ready to move onto the 'extinguish' phase with the Web browser?

Microsoft is renowned for its "embrace, extend, extingish" strategy which involves enthusiastically embracing and championing a new standard, as a way to become the market leader in that standard, then extending that standard with proprietary technology that lets Microsoft lock in customers and lock out the competition, and lastly to let the standard die on the vine or be replaced by an entirely Microsoft-proprietary alternative. Microsoft has famously done this with Java, which in its final stage has now been replaced by C# in the Microsoft view of the world.

In an earlier post, I suggested that Microsoft makes money from Windows desktops, not browsers, and that a powerful browser platform is in fact a threat against the Microsoft-preferred fat-client model which is more firmly symbiotic with the Windows desktop.

It seems there is growing evidence that Microsoft may in fact performing a slow embrace, extend, extinguish on the Web browser.

Embrace: When Netscape introduced the first commercial browser, along with the promise that the Web would make the desktop environment irrelevant, Microsoft quickly jumped to develop Internet Explorer and used a wide array of competitive tactics to ensure that IE grabbed overwhelming share of the market and eventually pushed Netscape out of business.

Extend: For a while, Internet Explorer supported all the W3C standards for Web pages, but also added its own additional capabilities that let Web designers do things that the official standards did not support. This seemed like a helpful feature for developers, but had the inevitable effect of locking developers in to the IE platform. I recently met with an ISV that has a Web-based application that depends on the IE 6 extensions. This meant that the ISV required all their customers to access their application through IE only. But now, since a significant segment of this ISV's customers use Apple Macs, and since Microsoft no longer supports IE 6 on the Mac, the ISV is left high and dry.

Extinguish? I read an article this morning titled "Has Microsoft Forsaken IE?" in which developers complain that Microsoft is falling behind in supporting new Web standards.

"While it is true that our implementation is not fully, 100 percent W3C-compliant, our development investments are driven by our customer requirements and not necessarily by standards," said Greg Sullivan, a lead product manager with the Windows client group.

When it was pointed out that the most vocal critics of IE's CSS support are Web developers and authoring tool makers, rather than standards bodies, Sullivan said those critics were comparatively few.

Interestingly, Microsoft has been pushing its Smart Client technology heavily recently, insisting that these server-managed fat clients are what customers really want for applications. While it seems indubitable that Microsoft will continue to support the browser for viewing Web pages, I can see them degrading IE's ability to serve as a platform for real applications.

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