How Internet Explorer Stifles Microsoft

by Devanshu Mehta

Microsoft has chosen the growth of IE over every other division in the company for 10 years now. Windows versions from 95 onwards have suffered enough. Now, the company’s IE-centric view of its business is hurting younger divisions of the company that have a chance of becoming a major force as the company looks to take on Google.

This story started out as a simple one of corporate arrogance and lack of support of my browser. If it had ended at that, the story would have been like countless others where the big corporation prevents you from being a customer unless you behave _exactly_ the way they want you to.

It all began when MSN announced their “AdCenter”: service which – similar to Google AdWords– sells text-based, contextual, per-click advertising for “MSN”: properties on the internet. Curious, I went to sign up for an account.

Now I did not plan on advertising on it. I have never paid for any advertising for any of my web sites ever. I was more curious in Microsoft’s method, their design and approach as compared to my experience with AdSense. So I went to the “MSN adCenter site”: and clicked to sign up.

Lo and behold:

Microsoft adCenter does not currently support the web browser you are using. Please sign in using Internet Explorer 6+. More about *system requirements*

Oh great! Another MS web site that does not work with Firefox. So I click on the phrase _system requirements_ to find out what I would need. Would a Mac user like me have any recourse? Or did MS not want my business? It only got worse. The _System requirements_ link did not work either! Not only could they not design a web site for my browser, they couldn’t even manage to create a link to their requirements page that I could click on!

So I write the good folks at MSN support a nice, courteous letter (honest!):

I would like to use adCenter to advertise my web services solution but am unable to register for an account. Apparently your service does not support either my Firefox browser or my Macintosh computer or both. The system requirements link also does not work on my computer. I have spoken to other people who are having the same issue. Is there any way to resolve this that does not involve buying a new computer? I would like to explore new opportunities for advertising and would hate to be locked out simply based on poor site design.

Within a day, I receive a response. While I will not post the email verbatim- it mainly says things like “we do not support the Firefox browser” and “we apologize”- here is the worst part:

Your Macintosh can be used with Virtual PC or Bootcamp which enables you to run XP. As a result, you will be able to access Microsoft adCenter.

Long story short, they are asking me to buy a copy of Windows XP (required for VirtualPC and BootCamp) to use adCenter!

Think about that for a minute. A company who sells advertising for their web properties, who would like as many people who can sign a check to advertise with them, is asking a potential advertiser to _buy their operating system to use their service_.

And it gets worse. I wrote back, still polite and level-headed:

Unfortunately this still requires me to purchase a piece of software (Virtual PC or Windows XP for BootCamp) in order to use a web site. This is an extremely high barrier you have set for potential clients and I believe you will have trouble gaining customers from the non-Windows world. This is unfortunate, because your service was one I was looking forward to using.

I believe this is asking too much. I build web services (which I would like to advertise) and cannot imagine how my product could survive if it supported only some browsers on some computers. I hope you do build a web site based on internet standards in the future so you can compete for all potential clients.

And I never received a reply from them again.. until a few days later when I heard from some survey department that wanted my opinion on the quality of MSN Support.

Interestingly enough, my MSN email account filed the MSN survey email under spam 🙂
AdCenter Spam

And it still gets worse. I finally give in and try the MSN adCenter web site with an old copy of IE for Mac that I have lying around for situations like this… _and it works_. IE for Mac is unsupported by Microsoft at this point and will never have an updated version. It does not support many of today’s web standards and also does not support many Windows-only IE web thingies like ActiveX. And it still worked.

So I went back to FireFox, spoofed my user-agent string to tell the web server that I was actually using IE 6 using “my favorite FireFox plugin”: and the web site worked, though it looked like somebody had stepped all over the page. So MSN adCenter was blocking me by checking my user-agent string!

Again, think about this. They are actively blocking potential advertisers. They have actually written scripts for key pages of their site that will block potential advertisers _just because they don’t use their browser_. That may be insidious, selfish and anti-competitive, but one none of that is surprising.

What is surprising is that it suggests mammoth arrogance; the kind of arrogance that puts IE before business sense. That puts IE before the first rules of business- you know, the ones about how the customers are right and should be kept happy and come first.

Using market-share in one division to fuel others is one thing, but using the power of one non-moneymaking division to the detriment of other, younger divisions is something that a publicly held company cannot afford. With a 15+% market-share of non-IE browsers, Micrsoft has just handed that advertising business over to Google. Google says thank you.

P.S.: “SearchEngineWatch”: discovered even worse behavior with Firefox. Apparently, if you use Firefox once you’ve signed in, Adcenter has trouble tracking your customers too! Their conversion tracking script expects you to use IE6. MSN’s suggested solution is for all your customers to use IE6. Like I said above, choose IE over customer service!

P.P.S.: I finally found the “system requirements”: and the “browser requirements”: pages, but only using the user-agent modifier in FireFox. Tsk, tsk. Without IE6, you are not even allowed to know how that you need IE6. Brilliant!

UPDATE (5/26/06): We have a “follow-up article”: with reaction from Microsoft, the blogosphere and more.

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