Popular frustration with intrusive pop-up ads may have inadvertently set back the advance of rich Internet applications. At about the time that Microsoft engineers started working on their Service Pack 2 (SP2) upgrade to Windows XP, most web users had had it up to here with X10, the company that saturated the Web with pop-up and pop-under ads for its wireless and web cameras until filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year. X10 was one of the most notorious of many offenders. Web surfers wanted an end to the pop-up plague.
So SP2, which rolled out last month, automatically installs a pop-up blocker into Internet Explorer on the machines of Windows XP users. It's part of a raft of security features designed to deliver on the company's commitment to the notion of Trustworthy Computing. Whenever IE detects a pop-up window being generated on a web page, up pops a new 'Information Bar' instead, just underneath the browser address bar. IE blocks pop-ups, file downloads and ActiveX controls (which allow a remote server to tap into Windows resources on the local PC). The Information Bar is designed to allow users to find out what has been blocked and unlock the item if they choose.
Unfortunately, Information Bar blocks much more than intrusive advertising. Browser-based applications use pop-ups, downloads and ActiveX controls, not to disrupt or exploit the user experience, but to make it richer and more productive. As CNET News.com reports in its story last week SP2 vs. the plug-ins, this will affect plug-ins for popular multimedia features such as 3D visualization and movie players, as well as more innovative rich clients from the likes of Laszlo Systems, which is based on Macromedia's Flash plug-in.
Regular readers will recall recent discussions here, most notably in my posting on Rich clients, network wealth, of Microsoft's failure of imagination over rich clients. Perhaps some will accuse me of using SP2 as a new pretext to bash Microsoft. But I think we have a clear case here of damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't. Popular outrage at the Internet pollution created by X10, Orbitz and the like demanded action to stop pop-ups. But no one stopped to make the distinction between the pop-up ads that people don't want and the pop-up windows that are so much a part of everyday Internet experience that everyone takes them for granted (until they install SP2, that is). No one in Microsoft's development team is going to lose any sleep over lost browser functionality, anyway, because Microsoft, as already mentioned, doesn't do browser-based apps (when it needs to connect network resources into the desktop, it much prefers plugging them into Office). What about the giants of Internet computing, like Google, eBay and Amazon? All have steered well clear of any hint of association with the stigma of pop-up advertising, so their developers have tended to avoid using pop-up windows in their applications.
So I think Information Bar's failure to cater properly for benign pop-ups, downloads and ActiveX widgets is not because, as some critics hinted in the News.com article mentioned above, Microsoft is deliberating trying to undermine online applications. It simply doesn't realize how widely they're used and what a critical part of some users' Internet experience (mine, for example) they are.
An additional factor here is that some of the most active users of this kind of functionality are not using IE at all. Anyone who's anyone in the tech-savvy weblogging community these days uses Mozilla's Firefox, not Internet Explorer. (I'm still stuck with IE only because I'm a technology laggard when it comes to installing software as opposed to using it online, that is. Firefox is on my to-do list, although I'm the kind of guy who'd feel more comfortable if the version number had already clocked up to 1.0).
Personally, I was instantly inconvenienced by Information Bar's intolerance of benign pop-ups. I'm a very frequent user of a useful little device called a bookmarklet, in particular one from Google's Blogger service called BlogThis!, which allows me to highlight a clipping on a web page and post it directly to a private weblog, simply by clicking on a bookmark in my Links bar. Information Bar isn't clever enough to recognize that the pop-up window this generates has been launched by my bookmarklet, so it blocks it. Nor is it clever enough to allow me to unblock the pop-up window I want without simultaneously unblocking any annoying pop-up ads from the site that I'm quoting from.
I'm told by the always well-informed Phil Ringnalda that IE won't block the bookmarklet so long as I Ctrl-click on the link, which is a good thing because I couldn't fathom that from Microsoft's FAQ, help or online support for its pop-up blocker. Here's a telling quote from an IE program manager in that News.com story I mentioned earlier, describing the results of Microsoft's usability tests of Information Bar:
"Our usability study and our engineering process suggest that this fared very well. It wasn't 100 percent, but the vast majority understood its purpose."
Can you imagine Amazon being satisfied with a book-buying process that left a significant minority of users feeling confused? Or Google failing to fix a search widget that proved impenetrable? This kind of attitude to usability may be acceptable for desktop productivity software, but it looks sick in the context of effortless usability people expect on the Web.
OK, this article started out saying that pop-up advertisers like X10 are responsible for the kneejerk response that is now temporarily setting back the cause of online applications. I still believe that Information Bar's shortcomings are not part of a deliberate ploy by Microsoft. But Microsoft's lack of awareness of online applications is part of the problem. So here's the Microsoft-bashing bit (or, if you will, call it constructive criticism). I think this whole episode illustrates in manifold ways how Microsoft simply doesn't get it. The company has terrific track record of creating immensely popular, accessible software for the desktop PC. But people at Redmond are going to have to wake up and get with the Web-centric program, pronto, otherwise Microsoft may well go down in history as a company that made great software by the standards of its time.