Lost in the hoopla of last week's Windows XP launch was the simultaneous launch of Microsoft's MSN 7 software, a one-two combination punch of freshly redesigned Web properties and the company's accompanying front-end software, MSN Explorer 7. MSN 7 is a new, overly purple version of Microsoft's MSN Web site, a Web portal designed for consumers. For hundreds of millions of Windows users, MSN is the default Web page in Internet Explorer (IE). As a result, the site has a semi-captive audience, which makes any change to the site more immediate to these people than even the XP launch. But for users of alternative browsers, such as Opera or Mozilla, the MSN 7 release created a quandary.

Arguably, most Opera and Mozilla users wouldn't typically hit msn.com anyway, and perhaps Microsoft was banking on that fact. The company implemented technology into its new MSN site designed to prevent users of obsolete browsers from hitting the site and getting a garbled mess. But the technology also kept out users of Opera, Mozilla, and other non-IE browsers, leading to antitrust complaints and cries of unfairness. Microsoft says that it was all a mistake and within days started working to make the site accessible for users of these browsers.

"Microsoft is trying to make the Web into its own private property," said Hakon Wium Lie, Opera Software's Chief Technology Officer (CTO). But the biggest complaint about the whole mess concerned Microsoft's comments about the mistake. Stating that its MSN Web properties require a browser with strict adherence to Web standards, Microsoft noted that only IE users would have a great experience on the new site. According to Hakon Wium Lie and various independent tests, however, Opera, Mozilla, and even rarely used browsers such as Amaya have better compliance with accepted Web standards than IE does. "The Microsoft statement is just ludicrous," said Tim Bray, who co-invented XML. "I assume Microsoft is going to be shamed out of this \[statement\]."

Mistake or calculated snub, blocking non-IE users from MSN comes at a risky time for Microsoft, which is mired in mediation for its antitrust case. Any perceived continuation of the behavior that landed the company in court is sure to have ramifications as it seeks to end its legal nightmare.