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Internet

The big guy vows to play by the rules

Microsoft pledges to diligently respect the HTML standard--honest.

In an bid to paint itself as the good guy in an Internet standards war, Microsoft today issued a pledge to diligently respect the Hypertext Markup Language standard.

The "Microsoft Pledge on HTML Standards" is a wholehearted dig at rival Netscape Communications, which has promoted a number of controversial extensions to the standard. But the document also reads as a mea culpa for Microsoft's own proprietary HTML work, which it has done in the name of "embracing and extending" Internet standards.

"Previously proprietary HTML extensions from Microsoft and other vendors have confused the market, hampered interoperability and been ill-conceived with respect to the design principles underlying HTML (and its SGML parent)," the document explains.

HTML is a standardized language for creating documents viewed from Web browsers. Tim Berners-Lee was the original developer of the HTML specification and is now its custodian as the head of the World Wide Web Consortium.

As companies such as Microsoft and Netscape have struggled to differentiate themselves in a technology market founded on this open standard, vendors have increasingly defined the direction of HTML by independently adding unique extensions to the language, such as Netscape's "blinking text" or Microsoft's "marquee" tag.

"Netscape has the headstart-open-policy where they get to take the [HTML] specification where they want to take it," said Jerry Michalski, managing editor of industry newsletter Release 1.0. "When they publish tools is when they publish the spec, but that gives them a lovely window of opportunity."

The scenario is akin to what happened to Unix, another "open" standard. Although the basic Unix code is open, each major computer vendor created its own version of the operating system that would run only on its own machines, thereby forcing application vendors to write modified versions of the software for each Unix version--all the time while proudly raising the open standards banner.

Microsoft and Netscape have in the past vigorously defended their extensions, insisting that they must innovate to survive in a fast-moving industry. And anyway, they add, all of our extensions are submitted to the W3C.

But today's statement from Microsoft is a rare public admission that users who have complained are right: its extensions have created interoperability problems because sites optimized for one browser don't function correctly when viewed with another.

In the statement, Microsoft agrees not to ship any HTML extensions without first submitting them to the W3C and to implement all of the W3C's specifications for the language. "Microsoft agrees to hold itself to these standards," the statement reads. "Will all of the other Web browser vendors, including Netscape, also agree to this conduct of behavior?"

Not everyone is convinced of the software giant's sincerity.

"We're not seeing Microsoft knuckle under the standards rule. Nobody wants to put the fate of their standard in the hands of standards body. That will never happen. [Microsoft] is trying to appear that they're more upstanding and respectable," said Josh Bernoff, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "The difference between this and what Netscape does is not particularly significant."

Microsoft's change in attitude may be a little late anyway. With the exception of the creation of style sheets, much of the debate about standards has moved on from HTML to issues surrounding programmable content, such as Java applets and ActiveX controls. And maybe Microsoft itself got tired of trying to keep up with Netscape's extensions.

But none of that matters to the W3C, which is joyfully taking Microsoft's statement on its face value. "It's a very strong statement of support," said Rohit Khare, a technical staff member at the W3C. "This is a landmark in the credibility of our efforts."

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