The browser war needs a Geneva Convention: do not harm civilians

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The Independent Culture
Something fishy has been going on with electronic commerce Web sites for the past few weeks. I have been bombarded with complaints from people who are having trouble completing purchases on retail sites that were once known for their reliability.

One leading UK online retailer was alerted by angry customers who were suddenly getting messages such as "illegal act", or found that their PCs would crash while they were trying to complete a purchase. This site has been trading successfully for almost two years, so it was obvious to everybody that the issue was a new browser version, not the site itself.

The site's builder is a leading UK retail system provider and a highly experienced e-commerce product developer. Extensive testing showed that the most popular browser versions such as Netscape Navigator 3.01 and Netscape Communicator 4.01 were perfectly fine. The only problem was identified with, guess what, Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.02, which worked with Secure Socket Layer 3.0 (encryption technology vital to ensuring secure online transactions) only around 30 per cent of the time. It seems that there is a bug in IE 3.01 that was not present in IE3.0, and as a result it does not handle SSL 3.0 very well. So if you as a punter want to buy online, you need to go back to IE 3.0.

Good God, I thought to myself, who could have predicted that if IE 3.0 worked well for e-commerce, Microsoft would cock up IE 3.01? Also, after discovering the problem, why didn't Microsoft release a patch that would alert the online retail site administrators that they needed to respond differently to various versions of the Microsoft browser?

Andy Matson, Microsoft's e-commerce manager, commented on the situation: "It must have been a problem on retail sites built with Netscape tools for electronic commerce." This was quite an illuminating answer, as it appears to mean that although SSL 3.0 is an industry standard, Microsoft has unilaterally decided that it is interested in electronic commerce only as long as we are using a Microsoft browser and purchasing from online retail sites built by using Microsoft tools. Typical for the hotshots from Redmond, though a very dangerous strategy, and terribly expensive to the online retailer.

We have calculated an approximate cost of the IE 3.02 failure to complete purchase and it is a substantial amount of money. But far more important is the loss of trust in the retailer's brand by frustrated online buyers.

The custodian of consumer trust is the retailer. It is only because of their relationship with a particular brand that online customers are confident enough to make a credit card purchase in otherwise unpredictable cyberspace. This trust is the most precious commodity we have in building a real industry out of online commerce.

It is time that we made browser providers accountable to retailers and asked for verification certificates before any upgrades hit the market. We must end the runaway culture of releasing half-baked beta versions to the masses instead of a small circle of beta-testers, who would understand the limitations of beta software. Where there are cowboys, there needs to be a sheriff. Plumbers have a body that regulates their industry; how come we don't have one that would put some order into the Wild West practices of browser suppliers?

Microsoft and Netscape are in a war; we know that. But now we must bring in a browser Geneva Convention: do not harm civilians (ie online consumers). It is also unwise to harm the retailers, who are the ultimate buyers of the e-commerce tools and are very unhappy at the current state of play, and the vulnerability of their customers.

They just might vote with their feet and move over to IBM, which has recently released a very promising first shot with its AS400-based e-commerce product. When it settles down in a year or two, most large retailers are likely to go that way, as it will help them to integrate with their existing back-end systems. IBM is a long-term player and a "gentleman", with a culture of responsibility to both consumers and corporations. Dealing with IBM would make a pleasant change.

Meanwhile, in the short term, we should rally round a common retail body that could keep an eye on browser providers.

A good opportunity was the first meeting of the Interactive Media in Retail Group, which could have been that verifying body, as it counts a number of top UK retailers in its ranks. Unfortunately, judging from the amount of time a Microsoft presentation was given during the first meeting, it appears to be in danger of becoming a Microsoft mouthpiece rather than a genuine retail body regulating online commerce.

Alternatively, an Electronic Commerce Retail Association could be formed - a body that fulfils the role of sheriff, but also provides a British voice in the browser development issues that are related to electronic commerce.

In this association, we need something similar to the way in which credit card companies work with retailers on technical developments. It is a partnership - moving forward, but at a speed that protects the consumer.

Meanwhile, please send any of your online shopping horror stories to eva@never.com l

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