Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Opera, Microsoft and Open Standards

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 20, 2001

Steven Stahl wrote:
One important item that I discovered about Opera is that like Netscape, it does not work well with Learning Management Systems that include rich text editors such as IntraLearn or Prometheus. It seems that nothing works with these programs except Internet Explorer.

Well, having bits of script like the following don't help. The script, generated by FrontPage 4, was extracted from an IntraLearn page (after much fuss and bother). It has the effect of sending people using Netscape browsers to the Internet Explorer home page.

function MM_checkBrowser(NSvers,NSpass,NSnoPass,IEvers,IEpa ss,IEnoPass,OBpass,URL,altURL) { //v3.0
var newURL='', verStr=navigator.appVersion, app=navigator.appName, version = parseFloat(verStr);
if (app.indexOf('Netscape') != -1) {
if (version >= NSvers) {if (NSpass>0)
else {if (NSnoPass>0)
else if (app.indexOf('Microsoft') != -1)
if (version >= IEvers || verStr.indexOf(IEvers) != -1)
if (IEpass>0) newURL=(IEpass==1)?URL:altURL;
else {if (IEnoPass>0)
newURL=(IEnoPass==1)?URL:altURL;} }
else if (OBpass>0)
if (newURL) {

The 'rich text editor' isn't so much a product of IntraLearn or Promethius as it is a feature of MS Windows (which is why it doesn't work on a Mac). The text editor is created essentially by using Javascript in Internet Explorer to interface with an MS Windows edit object. The code and implementation is discussed in detail on my website. See: here

The reason why Opera and Netscape cannot interface with the Windows editor object is not that they are inherently weaker browsers. Rather, it is because the editor object is proprietary Microsoft software: although potentially any browser could access the editor object, Microsoft keeps it as a trade secret in order to prevent these other browser companies from competing with Internet Explorer. The best a system designed for multiple browsers can do is provide buttons to create HTML code and a preview window; several such systems exist, the best of which I have seen is in Userland's Frontier.

This means that if an instructor uses Opera or Netscape to develop a course, s/he must work with HTML code or just plain text, where as with IE, colored text with different fonts and sizes, can be created with no knowledge of HTML (or just copied and pasted in). It seems to me that both of these browsers are going to miss out a large part of the education market. Mac users have a similar problem.

Well this is just the point of it all: it is, arguably, part of Microsoft's strategy to ensure that Netscape and Opera miss out on a large part of the education market. Mircosoft would like to ensure that educators work in and develop for Internet Explorer only. This is certainly good for Microsoft, but the question is, is it good for educators?

In my opinion it is better in the long run to work toward open standards and open platforms, even if it means forgoing some of the nice tools for now. Using Mircosoft products to create web courses, today at least, means forcing your students to use Internet Explorer to view them. But providing online learning through a single source - even one as technically competent as Microsoft - will have a long term cost: we will be locked into the Microsoft way of doing things and into Microsoft prices, both at the student end and the developer end.

Moreover, it will mean that Microsoft-based educational products (and there will be MS-based educational products: I saw an ad recently advertising for an "Educational Publisher" to manage the development of online learning materials for "a major Redmond software company") will have a significznt edge over any competition. If your online course materials cannot interact with the browser and the operating system in the same way that Netscape and Opera cannot interact with Windows, then you will see people posting message on lists like this to the effect that colleges and universities should purchase only Microsoft course ware. This, it seems to me, is not in the long term interests of students as a whole.

Somebody on this list (the message is deleted and I'm too lazy to check the archives) commented that why they could see the value of metadata such as defined by SCORM or IMS, they couldn't see the reasoning behind the 'start' and 'stop' APIs. It's just this sort of issue that the APIs are intended to address. As we develop courseware which looks more like a computer program than an HTML page, we want our browsers and learning management systems to be able to interact with them, just as we want our browsers and LMS to interact with the Windows edit object. The APIs are designed to create an open language for application interaction, so that your piece of editing software will work with my online course in someone else's LMS.

The fact that SCORM and IMS exist is no guarantee that we will have this interactivity. Online learning developers will have to be relatively militant in their demand for genuinely open and portable standards. Or they will have to learn to live in the lovely but somewhat wet climate of Redmond, Washington, and to work for a guy named Bill.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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