Microsoft is not letting up in finding new ways to inconvenience its users. This time it’s taken on the entire German-speaking world, some 100 million people, and doesn’t seem particularly bothered. But it’s not only the Germans: millions of Czechs, Swedes, Norwegians, and French are also inconvenienced... in fact two-thirds of the world's population.
The problem is that the newly available umlautdomains - that is, URLs containing umlauts (those two fullstops that appear above certain letters in the German language) - will not work with Internet Explorer, rather limiting the scope of the new domain names.
According to German registry organisation, Denic, which started selling the domains at the start of this month, you will need to download a plug-in if you want to see the site through Explorer. It points you towards VeriSign's i-Nav plug-in.
However, such complacency is getting on the nerves of the ever expanding number of Internet users whose language contains non-ASCII symbols (an estimated 800 million by 2005). Denic has sold 600,000 umlauted domains in a fortnight and expects to sell many more. Over five percent of .coms and .nets use non-English characters.
While Microsoft could easily include the plug-in in Explorer, it has so far failed to. And, although we have asked for an explanation, it has so far failed to contact us to explain. This is good news for other Web browsers however - Netscape, Opera, Safari and Mozilla all resolve the Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) and large sections of the world might find alternative browsers more convenient.
It is a measure of the US-centric Internet, however, that more isn't being made of it. When VeriSign introduced its SiteFinder service which directed all wrong (English) domains to itself, the entire Internet was in outcry. But a few months earlier, the company had decided to direct all IDNs to itself and use its own proprietary system to deal with them. There was barely a whisper.
In December 2003, VeriSign finally started using a standard devised by the IETF to resolve IDNs, but it is a measure of how much the company is trying to control the world's languages on the Internet that Denic points its customers to VeriSign's plug-in when there is one created by the Internet's standards bodies that can be downloaded here [zip file] to work with Explorer.
The issue goes far beyond domain names though. One German user, Richard von Knobloch has also found a more troubling problem - photos that have names containing umlauts are also inaccessible through IE browsers. What’s more, email addresses containing umlauts are also inaccessible.
Monoglot English speakers might think that is a minor problem but they couldn't be further from the truth. Umlauts are far more than an affectation designed for second-rate heavy metal bands, they considerably alter the meaning and pronunciation of a word - knowing the difference between schwül (muggy) and schwul (gay), for example, could save someone from a punch on the nose.
It may not all be bad news though. Open source software designers are increasingly aware that non-English speaking countries are a fertile ground for people not wishing to buy Microsoft software and are incorporating the vital characters that make up the world's other languages into their work. The Internet is by definition an international medium and anyone that ignores that - Microsoft included - will find themselves sidelined.