net.wars: The unbearable Internet Explorerness of configuration

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 29 October 2004

Internet Explorer versus Netscape, how 1995.

Wendy M Grossman

The other week, I had occasion to configure a Netgear DG632 router - it was the only DSL modem/router that PC World had when my excellent SMC Barricade and I had what I will delicately term a "firmware upgrade accident" hoping you will not draw the obvious conclusion, which is that I should not be allowed near delicate equipment.

The Netgear, by the way, turned out to be so unreliable that it had to be rebooted once a day and it's going back, replaced by a Zyxel, but I digress.

The router, like many of its contemporary ilk, is configured via a Web page. Point Mozilla at router. Enter user name and password. Wait. "You should see the following menu," the instructions confidently state above a screen shot of a page framed with menus and displaying choices in the center. "If you do not see the menu above," they continued less confidently underneath, "click on the word 'menu' in the upper left corner." I did not see a menu. I did not see a word "menu". What I saw was a single line of text:

L 4.0 Transitional//EN">

As was later pointed out to me, this is in fact short for:


That is, of course, the document type declaration that goes at the top of every Web page.

But in the heat of the configuration moment, I didn't recognize it.

I had no confidence this was a problem technical support could solve. Instead, I called my long-suffering ISP. He doesn't sell Netgear routers, but he said almost at once, "What browser were you using? You might just want to try that with Internet Explorer." I put down the Mozilla. And there in IE was the menu page, just like they said.

You might ask - and I do - why for the love of the old man who talks to his cat couldn't they SAY, right there in the instructions, "Requires Internet Explorer for configuration"?

But why does it need IE at all? There was a time - oh, say, last week - when you configured all these gewgaws by telnetting to them and using a text interface. Now, of course, no one wants to return to the evil, old days when only a fully qualified, trained, certificate-bearing geek could configure a router, but even I can manage to type in "2".

It turns out that this IEism is a trend applying to all sorts of networking equipment, much of it expensive, high-end stuff that really is only configured by the kind of people who are safe around firmware upgrades. My ISP mentioned SonicWALL, for example, which sells firewalls that can cost in the thousands.

Joe Levy, senior director of engineering for SonicWALL, explained it to me by email thusly. "Web developers and designers of web-interfaces (such as those on the SonicWALL or the Netgear) are constantly struggling with compatibility considerations, yet despite our best efforts incompatibilities invariably creep up from time to time - In reality, there are tons of standards when it comes to the web, and adherence is very loosely defined. Moreover, there are myriad factors that further affect a browsers compatibility with a web-site or web-interface, including support for ActiveX, scripting (e.g. VBScript and JavaScript), Java Applets, Dynamic HTML (DHMTL), and multiple versions of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)."

My soon-to-be ex-router has a style sheet? Has it thought about this?

Levy noted that when you log onto the SonicWALL it identifies the browser and attempts to accommodate it. "When the SonicWALL's on-board web-server receives user-agent information from a browser, it applies extensive logic (hundreds of lines of code, actually!) to try to determine how to best communicate with this particular web-browser." Call me an old net.curmudgeon, but this seems wasteful to me - hundreds of lines of code to write and debug that does nothing useful. Lose the JavaScript, Active-X, VB Script, applets - and make the damn thing so simple any browser can read it. This cannot be impossible, given that - again - it's not so long since you could do the whole thing with Telnet and text.

I don't meant to single out SonicWALL as in some way to blame for all the woes of its industry; Levy was just the nice man who took the trouble to answer my email where others (such as Netgear) did not. This is a widespread trend. My friend JI tells me that his Avocent keyboard-video-monitor over IP device is the same way. Even though internally it runs on NetBSD and uses the free remote viewer VNC, it can only be used on a Windows machine using Internet Explorer. "Why would a product running on open-source software be designed so you can only use it with Windows?" he asked. A friend who writes embedded software - and has noticed the same problem with Web-configured hardware - says his best theory is that "Microsoft provides embedded server development software to hardware manufacturers as a loss leader, significantly lowering the development costs for this part of their product, whereas other browsers, especially. open source versions, don't have sophisticated toolkits for embedded apps." He adds responsibly that he may be way off-base with this notion.

Your best paranoid theories on a post card, please.

You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).