Microsoft's recent release of a Firefox-friendly Windows Media plug-in might seem to signal a softening in its attitude to rival browsers, but don't be fooled. Here's five reasons to think it's not much more than a token effort.
|Balls of fire: the Ballminator himself
Microsoft has never made much secret of the fact that keeping rival browsers down is a key part of its business plan.
Way back in 1996, Steve Ballmer (then still only the deputy CEO) cheerfully proclaimed: "Every minute of every day, we'll ask every Microsoft employee to ask themselves, 'Have I done anything to increase our share of the Internet browser market?' That's the business we're in; driving up our share is incredibly, incredibly important to us."
When it suits, of course, Microsoft likes to look like it's playing nice. Hence the jaunty tone of a recent post on the official Windows Vista blog, announcing that users of Firefox -- the biggest threat to Microsoft's browser share since, well, a decade ago -- are now going to be fully allowed into the Windows Media world.
"Have you been itching to enjoy your media content on Firefox?" product manager Nick White cheerfully posted. "The Windows Media Player team put a lot of work into evolving media playback on Windows Vista through the new Media Foundation pipeline, and has also been actively monitoring feedback on WMP and playback in general. While commentary has been mainly positive for Web playback through IE, we've noticed that there's still work to be done to make Firefox users able to enjoy their media content on Windows."
Now, any attempt to make Windows Media -- still a common format thanks to Microsoft's strong ties to the developer and OEM community -- accessible without needing IE is useful. But this doesn't mean that this signals a renewed enthusiasm for Microsoft to look outside the borders of Stalag IE. Here's five reasons why:
(1) Forget extensions, we've got an executable . . . One of Firefox's more appealing features is the ability to add extensions to perform particular tasks. However, as a poster on Microsoft's own blog noted, Microsoft has released its add-in as an executable, rather than using Firefox's XPI format. While this isn't a unique situation for Firefox add-ons, it hardly suggests a deep commitment to the cause by Microsoft.
(2) It can be a hassle to download. Within a day of releasing the new plugin, users were complaining that it couldn't be downloaded. It turned out an MS systems administrator had accidentally changed the filename. Not very helpful.
(3) Cross-platform it ain't. Firefox is available for a wide range of platforms, but Microsoft's solution is strictly Windows-only . Mac users can try out Flip4Mac, though it's not a universally useful solution, while Linux users can curse the difficulty of trying to build their own solution.
(4) Cross-Windows it ain't. Indeed, Microsoft hasn't even extended the functionality far back into its own software library. Only Vista and XP SP2 are supported, and you need to be running WMP 11 to get the new plug-in working.
(5) It's the middle of April. Windows Vista has been available to practically everyone since January, and to corporate customers for nigh on six months. Waiting this long to get to the second-biggest browser suggests Microsoft's nearly as guilty of self-imposed Vista delays as, say, Apple has been with iTunes. (I did say 'nearly', mind.)