Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Web standards exist for a reason

Back at the end of the browser wars — i.e. the late 20th century — it looked like Microsoft had won and Netscape had lost. A number of Windows-centric shops designed their websites for Internet Explorer, either in terms of full functionality (“works best with Internet Explorer") or actual access (“requires Internet Explorer”). Microsoft encouraged this by promulgating APIs for Visual Basic, .Net and DirectX and the like.

Fast forward to today. Over the past five years, Microsoft’s desktop market share has been in a freefall. Statcounter — the widely cited arbiter of browser usage — chronicles how Google Chrome has come from nowhere to take share from IE and (to a lesser degree) Firefox (heir to Netscape’s customers and developers). At 55% in January 2010, the IE share is now under 22%:

When you include all platforms — tablets, mobile phones and consoles — the news for Microsoft is even worse — with an IE share of 13.5%:

Yes, as a Mac owner this was particularly galling, since Microsoft had a Mac version of IE (as one MS employee pointed out to me) only as long as it served its purposes during the browser wars. MS discontinued IE for OS X in 2003. Fortunately, with IE now a small fraction of the web audience, it no longer matters — except at one site crucial for business professors, as I discovered today working on a paper.

The Virtue of Bad Design
One of the more popular proprietary business databases is called Thomson One, from Thomson Corporation (later Thomson Reuters). For entrepreneurship scholars (like me), the most relevant content is VentureXpert, a database of investments by VCs, angel networks, corporate VC and other private equity investments. This data is used by PWC and its partners to announce their quarterly VC funding stats at the PWC MoneyTree site.

Unfortunately, Thomson One is only compatible with Internet Explorer. Worse yet, it is not supported (and doesn’t fully work) with any version of IE greater than IE 8 (as documented by IT support desks at Wharton, Harvard, Columbia, and other schools).

Internet Explorer 8 was introduced in 2009 and last updated in February 2011 (almost five years ago), just before IE 9 was released in March 2009. IE 8 is not compatible with Microsoft’s current desktops, laptops, tablets or mobile phones, which require Internet Explorer 10 or 11. StatCounter estimates the November 2014 market share of IE 6+7+8 at 4.03% of the desktop market.

For Windows users, there is an IE Tab plug-in that helps Chrome and Firefox imitate IE, but not all the Thomson One features are available in this emulation mode.

Customers Lose, and (So Far) Thomson Still Wins
So to recap, here is where we are:
  • The virtue of the web (particularly HTML 4+) is interoperability between browsers.
  • One or more IT architects at Thomson Corp. decided years ago to lock their database to specific features of one browser, rather than support Internet standards.
  • Those features are so non-standard that they are not supported by Microsoft browsers released since March 2011.
  • The company has done nothing to upgrade their site to support the 96% of the world that uses other browsers.
I'd like to think that whoever made this architecture design error was fired for his (it was most likely a he) mistake, but that would assume a level of IT competence that the legacy team of Thomson Corp has not yet demonstrated. (Meanwhile, other Thomson Reuters sites seem to work with a wider range of IE versions and in some cases even have a mobile client).

One thing that is clear is that Thomson Reuters is pretty confident of their monopoly position in this particular niche: if not, their customers would be defecting in droves, and fixing this broken IT infrastructure would finally become a priority. I’m not holding my breath (on either competence or customer orientation suddenly breaking out).

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