Opera vs. MSN

As news.com is reporting Microsoft is, once more, discriminating against Opera. Discriminating in the sense that they use server-side technology to send stylesheets that makes Opera look bad.

HÃ¥kon Wium Lie, author of the original CSS specification, has commented on this, and is demonstrating that the MSN is deliberately sending Opera a defective style sheet.
I wanted to find out if MSN had any "historical" reasons for treating Opera with a stylesheet that breaks so badly, so I downloaded the first Opera version, I’d say was widespread, Opera 3.62, and created a few screenshots. If you want to try yourself, Tommy A. Olsen keeps old versions of Opera archived. Most of these pre-adware versions of Opera offer a 30 day free trial.
Before reading on, you’d might like to download an archive of the screenshots for convenience.
When Opera 3.62 is served the page that all versions of Opera get, we see the same broken page that you would get by serving the same stylesheet to Opera 7 or MSIE. Opera 3.62 also breaks with the Netscape 7 stylesheet, moving text off to the left. Curiously enough, Mozilla does a better job with the Opera 7 stylesheet than either MSIE or any version of Opera. I’ll explain why later.
It should be duly noted that even in Opera 3.62 the IE6 stylesheet is the best suited one. Which proves: Opera’s CSS engine is mature enough. It was mature enough four years ago.
Modern browsers, as you may know, usually has a “quirks” mode, where they try to emulate the bugs and peculiarities of yesteryear’s browsers. This is triggered by which DOCTYPE declaration a document uses, or it’s triggered by the lack of such a declaration. Opera have information on how to trigger quirks mode in the different browsers.
MSN do not specify any doctype, and this will throw both Mozilla, Opera and MSIE into quirks mode. And this also explains why Mozilla treats the O7 stylesheet differently. While the quirks modes of both Opera and MSIE go to great lengths in emulating the bugs of Internet Explorer, Mozilla instead tries to emulate the bugs and peculiarities of Netscape 4.
If we try to view the msn.com page for either MSIE 6 or Netscape 6/7 with Netscape Navigator 4.8, the browser crashes. It works only when served the same stylesheet Opera is getting, and renders as intended.
Since the MSN front page always ends up being rendered in quirks mode, Mozilla ends up looking weird with the IE6 stylesheet.
So what should we make of this? Any version positively identifiable as Opera is being rendered with a stylesheet that largely is only compatible with Netscape 4, and browsers that clone Netscape 4’s rendering behavior. The only other browser with a noticeable marketshare that is able to mimic NS4 is Mozilla, and it’s offspring, like Phoenix and Netscape 6 or 7. None of these browsers is being served the NS4-compatible stylesheet. None. Instead they are being served a custom-crafted stylesheet for Mozilla browsers.
My personal conclusion on this is: MSN is deliberately sabotaging Opera. For what reason, I cannot tell. In one sense though, I think Opera should be flattered: Microsoft is obviously viewing the little Norwegian company as a large enough threat to use foul tactics to stop them.
My personal action is even simpler: MSN won’t be getting advertising revenue from me. I will not be using the MSN site. I’ll stick to portals and services that play fair.

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  1. Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
    While I’m always more than happy to cast doubt on Micro$hit’s motives, it’s equally possible that they’re just plain screwing up. A single screwed-up if or switch statement would explain why they can’t manage to serve up the “correct” CSS for a browser–and given their consistent lack of coding abilities I’d say this is pretty likely.
    Note that if they were trying to do something like this “on the sly”, their technique is a good one. Can’t really prove anything one way or the other, some website programmer will fall on his/her sword and admit idiocy, problem would be fixed and that would be the end of that.
    However, I suspect this has been broken for years; the fact that it’s never been fixed is a mystery… well, maybe not a mystery after all.

  2. Toman

     /  2003-02-07

    Yes, it certainly has been like this since at least 12 nov of 2001… From the archives: http://web.archive.org/web/20011112014725/www.msn.com/
    Stylesheet here:
    Now the problem is that we don’t know how these archived pages are served to the archive-bot.
    What browser is the bot acting as?
    What I do know, is that the page looks the same in IE6sp1 too..
    Perhaps they are telling the truth afterall?

  3. I can’t tell which browser the archive bot has been acting as, but from my own stats, most bots will either use some variant of Mozilla/4.0 or a custom name.
    The filename of the CSS file indicates that it is being fed the “We don’t know which browser this is so we’ll pretend it’s Netscape 4”.
    So, the archive doesn’t really confirm or deny anything.
    If one rereads HWLs original story, the distinction between “Oprah”/Oprah is the interesting one. It indicates that they indeed *know* about Opera, enough to deliberately serve it a specific stylesheet. But they obviously didn’t care enough to check it.
    I mean, if I even bothered about a web browser enough to write it into the stylesheet-selector, I’d sure as hell also make sure it actually worked in that browser.

  4. Toman

     /  2003-02-07

    All I’m saying is that the archive tells us that the stylesheet with the negative margin of 30px on the left side of ul’s has been there since 2001, before opera7 was out.
    If your assumptions about the css-name is right, it proves that the sheet has been used on other browsers before.
    Some investigatigation tells me the bot is sending a simple ‘ia_archiver’ as it’s agent.
    This can mean that msn.com has served old(‘other’) browsers that very stylesheet ever since the new design of msn.com was up.
    Knowing the trick HWL played with oprah as string, it is obvious that msn.com is targetting opera now, letting other, ‘unknown’ browsers get the ‘good’ sheet.