Microsoft breaks Web Plugins in Windows XP

September 4th 2001

Summary
Microsoft has quietly made a significant change to the Internet Explorer Web browser that disables important functionality for millions of World Wide Web users.  It made this change in favor of its own technologies and products over those of its competitors and without consultation with users or developers.  This change clearly illustrates Microsoft's use of its monopoly position to damage competitors while gaining wider control of content formats on the World Wide Web.  By forcing closer ties between Web content and proprietary Windows APIs Microsoft is able to extend its monopoly influence to futher its commercial advantage.

What are Web Plugins?
Web Browser Plugins are small pieces of computer code that extend a Web browser to view data formats other than HTML and images.   Hundreds of independent companies have developed Web Plugins that allow Web users to view every conceivable multimedia format, including commercial business presentation formats, compressed images, 3D animations and real-time video.  The most popular formats include Apple Computer's Quicktime video format, Macromedia's Flash and Shockwave formats, Adobe's PDF documents and Real Network's Audio/Video media formats.

Web Plugins were introduced in 1995 by Netscape in Navigator 2.0 and the API was publicly documented and made open to all Web developers. The Web Plugin API became an important cross-platform web standard and was supported on most commercially available operating systems and by all major browsers.  Microsoft adopted Web Plugins in Internet Explorer 3.0 in 1996 and at the same time introduced a competing Windows-specific technology called ActiveX.  The market for Web Plugins has continued to grow to the benefit of consumers over the last six years.

What has Microsoft changed?
In August 2001, Microsoft unilaterally removed support for Web Plugins from Internet Explorer.  This major change was made in a maintenance update to Internet Explorer 5.5 (SP2) and to Internet Explorer 6.0 which ships as the default browser in Windows XP.  This action breaks all Web Plugin functionality for any user who upgrades to these web browsers.  Microsoft acknowledges this change as "by design".  The change was not publicly announced nor was there any period of consultation with Web users or developers affected by this change.  It is extreamly unusual to remove support for a widely used feature in this manner.  For comparison Microsoft has never removed support for a major feature in a maintenance update to its Office product.

Why is this important?
There are a number of serious economic ramifications from Microsoft's decision to impose this change on PC users.

  1. Web functionality is removed for millions of consumers
    Without justification, prior consultation or public comment, a widely used World Wide Web technology has been unilaterally disabled for millions of PC users.  The real cost for new downloads, wasted time and lost functionality will run into millions of dollars.  For example a new download of the Apple Quicktime player is over 5MB and will take 30-60 minutes for a typical web user to restore video functionality.  Some significant number of these downloads will result in software incompatibilities and unusable configurations.
  2. Playing field is dramatically altered for hundreds of independent software companies
    Hundreds of software companies that have invested millions of dollars in R&D to create Web Plugins now have no market for their product.  Perhaps more significantly, millions of dollars spent to achieve distribution of tens of millions of media players is now worthless.  By disabling Web Plugins Microsoft has unilaterally destroyed tens of millions of end-user/vendor relationships.
  3. Millions of web pages are no longer viewable, require modification
    As consumers "upgrade" to the new browsers, millions of previously functional web pages will cease to work correctly without additional downloads and upgrades by end users.  A survey of search engines shows that there are over 2MM web pages using Quicktime, 3MM using RealAudio, 1MM using Flash and hundreds of thousands more sites using other popular plugins.  The majority of these Web pages will also have to be modified by their publishers to work correctly with ActiveX.   This is a significantly more widespread impact than Microsoft's recent unilateral removal of Java "Applet" functionality from its browser, which also breaks hundreds of thousands of web pages.
  4. Web cross-platform standard replaced with proprietary Windows APIs
    The Web Plugin API enables media playback features on all major operating systems, including Windows, MacOS and Linux. It was implemented broadly on all major web browsers.  It is no coincidence that companies that invested heavily in Web Plugins are also major cross platform vendors, typically for MacOS as well as Windows. While Microsoft previously embraced Web Plugins as well as Sun Microsystem's Java programming language, now they choose to only support their proprietary ActiveX technology. The effect of these changes is to tie the technical future of the World Wide Web more closely to proprietary Windows APIs.

Why would Microsoft make this change?
Microsoft has not publicly described the reasons for this change.  In a news article a Microsoft spokesperson said that the change was made for "security reasons".  This is not technically credible since the replacement functionality via ActiveX has a worse security record than Web Plugins.

The practical effect of this change by Microsoft is to break existing functionality for millions of unsuspecting web users.  For example users of media viewers like Apple's Quicktime movie player are forced to download and install a whole new copy of the media player if they wish to restore video viewing functionality. The default download for video media in Windows is Microsoft's own competing media player, Windows Media.  By breaking existing Web Plugin functionality and forcing Windows users to redownload, Microsoft is directly influencing its share of the market by forcing the deprecation of a successful competing technology.  In fact the entire existing market for media Web Plugins will be effectively destroyed as a direct result of Microsoft's change to its monoploy browser.  Content providers who wish to still see their content viewable are forced to comply and build a Windows specific ActiveX version of their content.


Conclusion
Microsoft has unilaterally destroyed the Web Plugin market by removing support for a widely used technology in all future Windows web browsers.  In doing so it has demonstrated how it is able to exercise its Windows monopoly to disadvantage competitors and control access to Media formats on the World Wide Web, just as it did by removing support for the Java language.  That it can make such decisions without public comment and inflict significant and unnecessary switching costs on global businesses is troubling.  There is no technical justification for deprecating such widely used functionality other than to require users to reconsider their choice of media player and to further advance Windows as a required platform to view multi-media on the World Wide Web.

Microsoft defends its right to "innovate" and integrate new features into Windows, a matter that is still before the highest courts in the United States.  One might question whether a monopoly operating system vendor should be able to deprecate significant functionality without good cause and due process, especially a technology that has been in widespread use for years by millions of consumers.  By making this change Microsoft has blatantly exercised its monopoly to advance itself over its competitors at significant cost to end users.

 
About the author
J. Giannandrea was formerly a Principal Engineer in the Web Browser group at Netscape/AOL where the cross-platform Web Plugin API was created together with engineers from Adobe, Macromedia and Apple Computer.
Comments on this article can be sent to <jg@meer.net>