Browser Changes to Hit Online Advertising

There’s still some denial among marketers, but many are preparing code re-writes to cope with Microsoft’s pending changes to its Internet Explorer browser, which were forced by a patent ruling.

Last August, a Chicago jury awarded Eolas Technology $512 million in damages for patent infringement related to the way Microsoft’s browser allows the embedding of small interactive programs in HTML documents. Advertisements made with Macromedia Flash, which has become an increasingly popular format, rely on this embedding to display properly. Other ad creative formats face the same issue.

While Microsoft appeals, it began work on a new version of the browser that eliminates the infringement by prompting the user to determine whether an ActiveX control should be loaded or whether to display alternate content. This means that users visiting Web pages that have not been updated to work with the new browser version will see a dialog box instead of a Flash movie or other content that uses ActiveX controls.

Annette Tonti, CMO of interactive technology provider Bluestreak, said that anyone using the now-omnipresent variations of rich media and other plug-ins that require Active X will be affected. Microsoft, Apple, Macromedia and Real Networks have all provided guides for developers who are willing to rewrite their sites, and Real and Macromedia have utilities in the works to automate the updates. DoubleClick, which has high hopes for its rich media ad serving and tracking platform, Motif, wouldn’t comment on specific plans to cope with the changes. A company spokesperson said only that “we will meet any guidelines necessary.”

Many are hoping for some deus ex machina, like the pronouncement from the Web gods of the W3C yesterday, saying that there is prior art that invalidates the patent.

“Tim Berners-Lee weighing in from W3C is a good thing,” Tonti said, “highlighting that the Patent Office needs to more deeply understand the true ramifications of their decisions in this Internet technology arena. These kinds of awards do nothing but cause hugely expensive problems for all of us trying to build the function and credibility of the Internet as a channel.”

Rich media platform provider Eyeblaster has reviewed several potential solutions, including the one proposed by Macromedia, according to vice president of research and development Ofer Zadikario. “After extensive testing,” he said, “I’m confident that we will continue to serve rich media ads to their maximum potential.”

Bluestreak, too, is cooperating with Macromedia on some server-side tools to bypass the proposed alert box. But implementing workarounds or utilities consume resources. “We have to add this engineering effort in with all of the others we are doing, which taxes all of us in the industry,” Tonti said. “It will cost the Internet industry untold millions to work around.”

The change will not only reduce the effectiveness of rich media advertising, but also could cause confusion and distress to consumers who may think that their browsers are broken or that they somehow mangled their settings. As Tonti said, “My mother will be on the phone with me wondering what she did wrong, for sure.”

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