Microsoft backpedals on MSN browser block

Users of Opera and Mozilla browsers will now be able to access a new MSN.com after Microsoft did an about-face on earlier restrictions.

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Microsoft did an about-face Thursday by opening the redesigned MSN.com Web site to some third-party browsers.

As first reported by CNET News.com, some Mozilla and Opera users found Thursday that they could not access the new MSN site. Instead, they were given the option of downloading a version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

But later Thursday, Microsoft decided to change its position.

"We are going to support the latest versions of Opera and Mozilla so people will be able to get the MSN experience," said Bob Visse, MSN's director of marketing.

But, Visse warned, "the experience may be slightly degraded simply because they don't support the standards we support closely, as far as the HTML standard in those browsers."

Currently, using the most recent browser from Mozilla.org to reach MSN.com brings a message from Microsoft saying it has "detected that the browser that you are using will not render MSN.com correctly." Mozilla.org does open-source browser development for AOL Time Warner's Netscape Communications unit.

Visse said earlier Thursday that the message would be shown to people using "browsers that we know don't support (W3C) standards or that we can't insure will get a great experience for the customer." W3C refers to the World Wide Web Consortium, which is developing industry standards for Web technologies.

Microsoft expects to have MSN.com fully accessible to the browsers late Thursday.

Visse apologized for the difficulties, emphasizing, "We're in the business of reaching as many customers as possible and providing services and content to as many customers as possible. The last thing we're going to do is turn people away."

Hitting a wall
Norwegian browser maker Opera Software confirmed Thursday that it had noticed its browser is unable to access MSN.com. Several readers also alerted CNET News.com.

"Microsoft is actively keeping our browser from accessing MSN.com," said Jon S. von Tetzchner, Opera's chief executive. He added that every time a browser connects to a server, it sends a string to the server telling it what type of browser is seeking access.

See special report: The Gatekeeper:
Windows XP "Microsoft is seeing (that) it is an Opera browser and shutting it out," said von Tetzchner, whose team was testing the problem. "If you change the Opera string by one letter, it is letting us in."

Microsoft admitted that its technology was watching for Opera strings--but only because the company wanted to encourage people to use standard-compliant browsers.

Earlier versions of the Netscape Navigator browser also jammed and crashed when trying to reach MSN.com. The latest version, 6.1, seems to be working. Visse said MSN.com supports Netscape 4.7 and all later versions.

On Thursday, Microsoft launched its newest

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operating system, Windows XP. The company had previously announced that, on the same day, it would also give MSN.com a face-lift to make it run faster as well as offer more entertainment and news content.

A move to favoring Internet Explorer over other browsers would give Microsoft a considerable advantage as it prepares to jump into the world of Web services. Through its .Net software-as-a-service strategy, Microsoft hopes to sell software by subscription, and either directly or with a partner, offer a wide range of ancillary services, ranging from online calendars to financial and travel services.

Through Windows XP, MSN is emerging as a major end point for delivering those services. The majority of Microsoft's most popular products link to MSN.

Office XP, for example, features a pull-down, get-more-info menu feature called Smart Tags that connects to MSN. Microsoft had planned to include Smart Tags in Internet Explorer 6 but pulled the feature.

Financial programs Money and Great Plains also lean heavily on MSN features. Besides launching MSN as the default home page, Internet Explorer 6 replaces the more typical "page not found" with an MSN search page.

Windows XP is chock full of MSN hooks. The Internet search feature from the Start Menu uses MSN. Windows Media Player drives traffic to MSN, as does the Passport authentication feature found in Windows Messenger. The Photo & Camera Wizard, where people can order online prints from digital images, also directs traffic to MSN.