New browser war, same old dirty tricks?

Have you heard? There’s a new browser war, with a suddenly re-energized Microsoft out to maintain its dominant share against upstarts like Google Chrome. If we’re all going to do the Time Warp and zip back to 1996, it’s only fitting that we toss some fear, uncertainly, and doubt (FUD) into the fight. Which is exactly what Microsoft appears to have done.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Have you heard? There’s a new browser war, with a suddenly re-energized Microsoft out to maintain its dominant share and impede the progress of upstarts like Google Chrome. Every major browser maker has kicked its development cycle into overdrive to one-up the competition.

So, if we’re all going to do the Time Warp and go back to 1996, it’s only fitting that we toss some fear, uncertainly, and doubt (FUD) into the fight.

That appears to be Microsoft’s strategy with its new cloud-based Office 365 service, which I am currently beta-testing. Like many current Microsoft products, this service works with a broad range of browsers and operating systems. And indeed, I have been merrily testing Office 365 in all sorts of different modern browsers, and it seems to work well in all of them.

So why do I see this text every time I start up the service using the current shipping version of Chrome? "You are currently viewing Microsoft Office 365 with a web browser that may cause some pages to display incorrectly and some features to function in an unexpected way. You will have a better experience ... if you use one of these supported browsers."

The list does not include Chrome. Which is very strange, because according to the official software requirements page for Office 365, supported browsers and operating systems include:

  • Windows-based:Internet Explorer 8, Mozilla Firefox 3 or 4, Google Chrome 6, 7, 8, or 9 (OWA Light only); Internet Explorer 7 is supported with Windows Vista with Service Pack 2, and Internet Explorer 9 is supported with Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008. [emphasis added]
  • Mac-based:Safari 4 or 5
  • Linux-based: Firefox 3 or 4

That’s a fairly complete list. Commendable, even, and completely at odds with that warning. And what about that nagging disclaimer that only the light version of the Outlook Web App (“OWA Light”) is supported on Chrome? That also seems very odd, especially if you go to Microsoft’s official information page for Outlook Web App in Exchange 2010, which says, with no strings attached: “Works with all major browsers.”

On a separate support page (“Outlook Web App Supported Browsers”) for Exchange 2010, you’ll find this text:

To use the complete set of features available in Outlook Web App and the Web management interface, you can use the following browsers on a computer running Windows XP, Windows 2003, Windows Vista, or Windows 7:

  • Internet Explorer 7 and later versions.
  • Firefox 3.0.1 and later versions.
  • Chrome and later versions.

Given that Exchange 2010 powers Office 365 mail, that seems to suggest that Chrome should be able to use all OWA features, doesn’t it?

This helpful blog page from a member of the Exchange team lays out the differences between the full and light versions of OWA in Exchange 2010. Based on this list and my testing, there’s no question that the Outlook Web App in Google Chrome has all features and is not a light version.

So why does that scary warning come up when you use Chrome to visit Office 365? I asked Microsoft, and got this noncommittal response from a spokesperson:

Office 365 is designed to work with the majority of browsers on the market, including Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, and Firefox.  During this beta period, we have tested the performance of these browsers within the Office 365 experience, which has been very strong in the vast majority of cases.  We are aware of some functional issues associated with certain browsers in specific cases.  In these cases we display an error message to make sure our users are aware of potential problems before they proceed.

“We are aware of some functional issues…” Normally, when a beta product has some known issues, those are disclosed in a readme file or release notes so that testers don’t waste time on a broken feature (or file bug reports against it).

But not here, strangely. When I asked if Microsoft had any more details to share about these “functional issues,” I was told, “Not at this time.”

It’s convenient that this message occurs only on Chrome[*], which is probably the biggest threat to Microsoft going forward. (Sorry, Firefox.) In fact, in the absence of details, the sole purpose of this message seems to be to spread fear, uncertainly, and doubt about the wisdom of using a particular competitor’s software.

Just like the good old days.

Update on testing: The compatibility warning shown here also appears when using Safari on Windows and Opera on a Mac (I did not test Opera on Windows.) It does not appear when using the unsupported Firefox-on-OS X combination.) Also, when I manually tweaked Chrome so that it reports the same User-Agent string as IE8, it opened just fine with no warning.

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