Proprietary browsers built on proprietary browsers: the blind leading the blind?

Proprietary browsers built on proprietary browsers: the blind leading the blind?


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.

Nothing.

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

Nothing.

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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Comments

Terry Hancock's picture

Sounds just like the sort of deal my mother got with America Online a few years ago: a customized (amazingly awful) browser and low-end internet service. It was also pretty bad (she long ago switched to a more generic internet service and a Mozilla-based browser running in Debian, BTW).

I think they do it primarily to force users to see advertisements, which probably account for more of their revenue than do the subscription fees. This is obviously not in the customer's best interest, so they want the software to be a proprietary black box that the customer can't (or at least won't) try to tinker with.

There may also be a perception that having one client-side software system will minimize their own tech support costs. I think it's unlikely that this actually pans out in the end, because the reduced variety of clients has to be weighed against the inevitability that such a custom-made client is going to be buggier to start with (but this is an old engineering lesson that people just keep on having to re-learn).

The "real" problem is accepting a "too good to be true" deal like that without thinking about the consequences -- if the subscription fees are not enough to pay their bills, then the company is clearly planning to make their money in some other way. It's a matter of caveat emptor to check for such catches.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

The “real” problem is accepting a “too good to be true” deal like that without thinking about the consequences — if the subscription fees are not enough to pay their bills, then the company is clearly planning to make their money in some other way. It’s a matter of caveat emptor to check for such catches.

Caveat emptor is pretty much a fact of life these days but in this case the browser is not even mentioned as part of any deal. I suspect most people signing up to BT as their ISP do so because BT is the biggest name in the UK telecoms market and it seems simpler to keep everything in one box. They aren't aware of course that the BT that supplies their phone line (and even the backbone for the broadband) is different to the one that would be their ISP.

So the case is that many people just sign up for "broadband" with a company they've heard of and insert the CD they are sent according to the instructions. Then they get a "BT/Yahoo Internet" icon on their desktop. It very much resembles the way AOL imply that you must sign on before you can access the Internet from a PC connected to one of their routers.

BTW AOL still do the same thing - at least here in the UK they do. I have another friend who uses AOL (last one - I have weaned the others away) and I probably do more support for them on their broadband than anything else. You can use other browsers but it's patchy at best and it drives me nuts.

--
Equitas IT Solutions - fairness, quality, freedom
http://www.equitasit.co.uk

Terry Hancock's picture

Yeah, this is one of those examples of why the "perfect knowledge" assumption in first-order free market economics doesn't really work out in real life: knowing that the price is too low is too difficult for the majority of the market. You need expert knowledge of an industry which is constantly changing in order to know that.

Clearly that answer doesn't help anyone but experts.

This is also the root of the problem for "end user" support with free software: you can get lots of help and make free software work, but only if you have a relatively "expert" level of knowledge of the field.

Trying to make things both simple and reliable in this intrinsically complex and incompletely-predictable area of technology would be difficult even if everyone were perfectly cooperating. As it is, with competing self-interest thrown into the mix (which is true, though less problematic, even for free software), the results are understandable. Frankly, it's amazing this stuff ever works.

The real innovations in this field aren't to do with technology itself, but rather in how we use it to allow people to organize themselves to overcome the detrimental effects of self (versus group) interest.

In the proprietary world, the main "sin" to be overcome is greed ("what's in it for me?"), while in the free software world it's "sloth" ("why should I spend my time on that?"). I think it can be argued that the latter is a better enemy to have, but both are troublesome. :-)

NickG's picture
Submitted by NickG on

From what you write about that browser, I'm fairly sure it's a rebranded (poorly) IE.
Check out IEAK http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/ie/bb219541.aspx

Maybe you can build a clean version for your friend?

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Well if it is just IE rebardned, it's still proprietary but in addition, this is still more than a simply IE rebranded. I've encountered plenty of those browsers before - which start with IE, a different icon and default title.

Not this one, they've added bits, taken bits away and - here's the crucial bit - you have to agree to an EULA (not from MS) before installing it. In addition there is a significant wait between say IE8 and the next version of this browser.

I'm not sure that replacing a number of proprietary-based headaches with different ones will help here. Firefox will do them fine and so far has not caused any issues.

cheers
--
Equitas IT Solutions - fairness, quality, freedom
http://www.equitasit.co.uk

Author information

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Biography

Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.