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Ryan Cartwright [opinions]

Proprietary browsers built on proprietary browsers: the blind leading the blind? [firefox] [internet-explorer] [browsers] [bt-yahoo]

A friend of mine has an ADSL account with BT/Yahoo here in the UK. For some reason BT/Yahoo feel compelled to supply (nay insist upon) a customised version of I.E. as the browser for their customers. Okay so first things first: why choose I.E.? If you are thinking it's for that old chestnut of greater compatibility with a higher number of websites, think again. That argument would work if your customised browser was simply IE rebadged and to all intents and purposes presented as IE. This monstrosity doesn't -- it presents as a BT/Yahoo browser based upon IE. Thus some of the IE compatibility works and some doesn't. But there's more -- much more.

Some sites will detect you as using IE and recommend you download their toolbar (Google for one). Leaving aside the can-of-worms that is whether such toolbars should be installed at all, with this browser you can't because the toolbar will install itself on the default (and don't forget impossible to remove) installation of IE. So your customer clicks the "download the Google toolbar" button, follows the instructions and restarts their browser.


No toolbar, no handy gadgets, no "powerful tools".


Also many of the features of the Microsoft offering are missing so all those handy guides out there that tell you how to do things in IE -- don't work in this thing.

A specific complaint

This all came to my attention because of a specific issue my friend was having. Prior to that they had soldiered on in a world of fudge and making-do because they figured that's how it was with "the Internet". The issue that finally got to them was that every time they went to a particular section of the BT/Yahoo home pages, they were presented with an error message. It turned out it was a javascript debug message -- we have all seen them and most of us know what to do with them (ignore them generally) but to a non-techie end-user it might as well have been written in martian. After it kept happening they called me in.

After some careful monitoring I realised that the error was caused by a particular advert in a banner above their BT/Yahoo webmail client. I couldn't fix the bug in the script but I could find where it was. Now on my system this would be easily resolved with AdBlock. A single right-click and the problem is gone. On this one it's not so easy. Firstly Microsoft's browser has never really been suited to blocking advertising -- even with a plugin. Recently an I.E. ad blocker plugin has appeared but of course this isn't IE, this is the BT/Yahoo browser so the plugin doesn't work. Disabling javascript debug messages has no effect either. In fact because the settings dialog is identical to IE's one you can never be sure which browser the changes will have effect on.

I told my friend to contact BT/Yahoo and tell them the specific advert we suspected as causing the problem. BT/Yahoo said it was an issue with the PC. Nope -- we checked that. Then they said it was the browser version. Nope -- we updated it to their latest version (based on I.E. 8). Then they said it was not their fault but they'd look into it. No, my friend didn't fall for that one either. My friend rang Dell -- the PC supplier. But this was outside their remit and so they charged £40 for the support. The "support" amounted to a hill of beans (as Bogart would say). So back to BT/Yahoo and so-on and so-on.

What am I ranting about?

So am I ranting about the script error? Not really, as painful as it is it could be worked around. Am I ranting about IE per-se? not really although it has again proven it is unfit for purpose in my mind. Am I ranting about the BT/Yahoo browser? Not in so many words. The browser is a terrible mish-mash of IE -- with the appearance and functionality of IE 5. Slow, cumbersome, poorly thought out and ill-conceived. It has the hallmarks of "that will do" decision which has never been re-visited.

However my real rant is on the decision to base this piece of total rubbish on a proprietary offering in the first place. Forcing your customers to use one particular browser is bad enough, forcing them to use something like this is even worse. This browser is of course proprietary, if I could get to the code I could perhaps see the problem and suggest a fix. I'm not entirely convinced the issue is solely the fault of the javascript. But I can't. I can't even contact the developers and explain the exact nature of the problem. Welcome to proprietary software. What bugs me the most is that -- having been subjected to this kind of treatment again by proprietary software and its distributors -- my friend has taken the opinion that "this is how it is" with software and computers. You get a problem, you ask someone, contact people, complain and -- because your problem is nothing particularly big (in the developer's eyes) you get little or no response.

Welcome to the future - free software

Now there will be those who will be saying that you can get similar experiences with free software. With some products that is the case, but with things like browsers I have found you can often get timely and -- shock -- helpful help. Yes some of that is via end-users on forums and the like but the difference is that the advice free software forums tends to give is generally not of the kind that helps you work around the software. I suspect I am not alone in this, but my experience of free software products (particularly the better known ones) is that they tend to get things right more often than their proprietary counterparts. Certainly the free software browsers I've encountered do not give the kind of horrid experience this pile of rubbish does and here's the real nub: if they did we -- the users -- could do something about it other than run away (although I'll admit sometimes that is the correct response).

I've since discovered that for all of BT/Yahoo's posturing, you are not required to use their horrible browser. You can use alternatives and so -- for a number of reasons, my friend is soon to enter the wonderful world of free software when I install Firefox and AdBlock for them. And then they go back to browsing again and not waiting for "customer support" to get back to them.

That's it for today. Rant mode off!


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