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Microsoft gives error pages new direction

By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
September 5, 2001, 10:40 a.m. PT

The Web's once common "page not found" errors are themselves going missing, stripped from recent versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer in favour of a search tool provided by--you guessed it--Microsoft. 

The software behemoth quietly introduced the change two weeks ago, updating Internet Explorer's autosearch function to launch whenever someone types a misspelled or nonexistent domain name into the browser's address bar. 

Now an MSN Search page appears by default, rather than one of several standard error pages. 

For example, a search for "http://www.microsoft.com" might draw a page suggesting alternate spellings or Web links for the mis-typed address, as well as direct Internet Explorer users to MSN Search. 

Microsoft said the update helps Web surfers by better directing them to places they want to go. The change is an effort "to make it a less disruptive experience to browse the Web," said Jim Cullinan, lead product manager for Windows XP, Microsoft's forthcoming operating system. "Instead of flashing an error message...this enhances and improves the experience for novice users." 

But some critics say the feature could be likened to a land grab on territory that has otherwise been the Antarctica of the Internet. Error pages are called up more than 14 million times a day worldwide via Internet Explorer, according to Microsoft. 

Because Internet Explorer is the most widely used Web browser, critics say the change could unfairly influence competition among search engines on the Internet. 

"Microsoft always can have a plausible customer service justification in making the service easier--and they can maintain that with the straight face. But the net effect of this is to push to the max every possible way to leverage the Windows monopoly," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of non-profit law firm Media Access Project, a group that has worked with organizations such as Consumers Union in examining issues around Microsoft's monopoly in desktop operating systems. 

The criticism is just the latest in a long string of complaints focusing on Microsoft's alleged monopolistic practices--criticism that has reached a renewed crescendo as the company prepares to release Windows XP, a major overhaul of its desktop operating system. 

That launch will come as Microsoft braces for court-ordered limits on its business in the wake of a federal appeals court decision that found the company engaged in unlawful conduct to maintain its OS monopoly. The Redmond, Wash.-based company has appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court. 

Microsoft's decision to replace error pages with its own search tools has so far drawn a muted response from competitors. Representatives at Yahoo and AltaVista both declined to comment on the move, while Google did not return phone calls Tuesday. 

Himawan Gunadhi, chief executive of newly launched search service Wisenut, said that the move clearly delivers more novice Web surfers, likely to mis-type domain names, to MSN Search. 

"For those that are competing against MSN Search, this is a challenge because this service captures more users for MSN," he said. Gunadhi added, however, that he doesn't see this as a threat to his company specifically because Wisenut hopes to license its search service to major portals such as MSN.


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