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Why did Microsoft keep browser feature from partners?

Several developers say the software giant removed a key feature from browser code that it shares with third-party developers but kept the feature in its own version of the browser.

Is Microsoft holding out on its browser partners?

Several developers say the software giant removed a key feature from browser code that it shares with third-party developers but kept the feature in its own version of the browser. Users are less likely to download custom versions of Internet Explorer if the Microsoft version has more desirable features, according to the developers.

The "forms-autocomplete" feature in Internet Explorer 5.0, released in April, stores usernames, passwords, and any other information a user regularly enters into online forms so that when the user returns to a site, he or she does not have to remember all the data.

A Microsoft spokesperson said that during the beta test process, a number of developers that work with the company said they wanted the ability to enable or disable the "autocomplete" feature. Microsoft determined that it couldn't provide that choice within the time frame necessary to ship the browser on schedule, so it shut off the functionality, the spokesperson said--adding that the issue is being corrected for the 5.01 version of the browser, expected to be shipped to developers "before the year is out."

The spokesperson declined to name any of the developers or say how many complained.

Microsoft makes some of its browser code available to third parties so they can build custom versions of IE. Lycos, for example, offers a custom version of IE, which users can customize to place the portal's features within easy reach.

Third-party developers have access to IE's "rendering engine," which is essentially core Web page technology that can be embedded into other pieces of software to create a custom browser. A number of developers said they were not informed in advance that feature would be removed. They added that the removal gives Microsoft a competitive advantage, because many users say it is a deciding factor in determining which browser to download.

Some developers say Microsoft is concerned that the custom versions of its browser could dilute the IE brand. For example, America Online, which has about 17 million users, offers a custom version of IE, and many users are likely to associate the browser with AOL instead of Microsoft.

"This is troublesome to us," Drew Cohen, chief executive of NeoPlanet, said in an interview. "Microsoft wasn't supposed to put code in the [operating system] layer that they weren't offering to third parties."

Adam Stiles, chief executive of NetCaptor, said the other developers he is in touch with "were all incredibly angry that this feature was taken out.

"We all just flipped when this happened," he added.

Regarding the time frame for the fix, Stiles said: "Ouch, that's a long time to wait. Considering [Microsoft] can rerelease Messenger every few hours, you'd think they'd be able to do this as well for IE."

He added that Microsoft "has released a number of patches to IE 5--one within days of the initial release. The fix could have been included at that time."

Stiles said several customers have written in to complain. One wrote: "I saw on your site that you said that Autocomplete was turned off by [Microsoft] for forms, but I use it constantly in latest version of IE 5. That lacking is what is keeping me from using NetCaptor on a daily basis."

A NeoPlanet customer concurred: "Why don't you have the autocomplete feature for passwords? It's the only reason why I don't make this browser my default one, I can't remember my passwords and IE's feature makes it easy for me to get into my passworded Web sites."

Brian Duperrouzel, president of third-party developer KatieSoft, said he was upset by the way Microsoft handled the issue. When he contacted the company about it, he said he "got the runaround" from developer relations representatives and "felt it was a little bait and switch."

"They don't want to do all of this [research and development] and then give away all their new features" to others that could end up competing with IE, he added. "[Microsoft is] going to release the features that only they can have and then have this lead time over everyone else."

The Microsoft spokesperson said that "is not the case at all."