EC versus IE, what gives?

Extreme economic liberalism leads to chaos, and the current world order offers competition law as one cure. But will the European Commission’s examination on Internet Explorer bundling issue have any meaningful consequences?

As you may or may not know, Opera filed an antitrust complaint with the European Commission in 2007. Opera had two key points: First, Microsoft should agree to unbundle Internet Explorer from Windows, and second, it should follow open web standards. The first point raised far more noise, with people first joking about Windows getting an installer screen that would actually ask the user which browser to install.

Well, that was little but interesting thoughtplay until the commission recently announced they were actually considering it. And now that the Commission has also been reported to gather information about PC manufacturers’ communications with Microsoft on the matter, it seems more and more likely we’ll actually see a new setup dialog prompting the user for a browser choice.

A new installer screen, really?

What would the new screen actually buy the competition? Essentially, they would have a version of their software shipped with Microsoft’s OS. That alone won’t give them much of a benefit – any browser is quick enough to download and install. The real gain would be the user’s increased awareness of alternatives. Instead of just being given the default IE and never even understanding the issue of a browser choice, she would now consciously make a choice between the various competitors.

So what should we be expecting if we had the installer screen right there? Most people would go down the route of selecting the first browser, whatever it was. Until the European Commission ruling comes out, there’s no way to know what will be required. Should the alternative browsers get a run of text or maybe a small graphics window in which to demonstrate their benefits over the familiar Internet Explorer choice? If they don’t, it’s pretty unlikely anyone would go for something but the most familiar option, and that would be the one signed by Microsoft. If they do, will the user gain something?

While using Firefox, Opera or Chrome certainly has its perks (mind you, I use Firefox mostly myself), would any browser maker be able to showcase their advantages over IE in the smallish space one might imagine in an OS installer? Keeping in mind we might be running with barely the basic drivers installed at this point, running even videos might be a stretch. A normal user setting up a new computer won’t want to delve into a browser product comparison at that point – she wants the OS installed and running. The inclination of hitting the most familiar button is, again, a strong argument for no change in user behavior.

No doubt an install-phase browser choice would please seasoned users of alternative browsers, although they will install their tool of choice anyway. Since the browser is extremely likely to be updated on the first start, the actual benefit won’t be reduced download time – it will be reduced effort of installation. Not to say that wouldn’t be important, but let’s face it: Most people care about the web sites, not about the tools they surf with. Browser installation per se is really a non-issue.

Changing the default or removing IE?

If the EC ruling requires Microsoft to remove IE from Windows, what would that mean from a technical perspective? The IE surface is embedded in such a magnitude of applications (both by Microsoft and third parties) and that actually removing the Internet Explorer binaries would seem to be practically impossible. That won’t, of course, prevent the EC from requiring it – the actual level of integration is of course a matter of debate, with various doubts of Microsoft exaggerating the difficulties having been expressed.

While the Commission has spared little effort in punishing Microsoft, I wouldn’t expect them to go as far as requiring the actual removal of IE. Much more likely is the setting of the default browser, perhaps with IE disabled as a standalone browser application. Such changes might be doable, and would force normal surfing activity to run on the alternate browser.

In this scenario, disabling IE as a standalone browser would be important, otherwise some apps might launch IE and the user would be confusing by a different surfing experience (bookmarks and whatnot). Perhaps iexplore.exe should redirect to the default browser for maximum functional compatibility? This sort of an approach would probably provide most benefit with the least harm, and thus probably aid consumers most.

However, as often is with competition law, the parties on the other side of the fence have little incentive to minimize the harm caused. Therefore, demands for total removal of IE are likely to be further presented and discussed. I’m personally hoping for lesser measures, as any software developer doesn’t really desire the complexity the removal of IE would be likely to cause.

Is Opera late?

You could also ask “Why now?”, and with a good reason. Given that IE’s marker share has been on the decline for quite some time now, Opera’s claims feel late. Firefox has grabbed a fifth of the browser market with nigh-zero marketing budget. That’s certainly a proof that much in the markets can be changed even without these measures. The fact that Googled pushed Chrome out also means that serious companies aren’t afraid to compete. So why do these free products need competition law to defend themselves? Also, should they consider free market methods (e.g. advertising) before resorting to free market defenses (competition law)?

It has been claimed that Microsoft’s dominance with IE has been hurting the web evolution by slowing down the web standards adoption rate. In a sense, I agree. IE 6 is still the millstone that drags us all back. The years Microsoft let its browser product flounder without direction certainly came with a cost. But as with market share, things have changed. While IE 8 is far from being the panacea of web standard wizardry,  it represents a huge step forward in the web standards sense. The fact that IE 6 is out there is Microsoft’s fault, but my pointing finger is slowly turning towards the direction of the companies – yes, it’s pretty much corporate users with IE 6 out there – that are delaying the upgrades. Again: Why wasn’t this brought up in a time where Microsoft was actually the party to be blamed?

Impending failure for the EC?

The Commission has so many ways to fail this one. Let me count a few:

  • Rule that Microsoft must remove IE from Windows. Such a ruling, if even possible to implement from Microsoft’s perspective, will cause enough compatibility hassle to counter all the consumer-facing benefits involved at least for a long time.
  • Rule that Microsoft must offer alternate default browsers in a way that confuses consumers, particularly re support issues. Microsoft should be allowed to be very clear about the support policy for alternative browsers – but will adding a red support disclaimer further reduce the chance of anyone actually picking anything non-IE?
  • Rule either of the above, but in a way that only forces Microsoft to ship an alternate version of the OS while allowing the current versions to ship. See what happened with Media Player: We got Windows N versions which nobody uses. The competition won in a sense of inflicting additional costs on Microsoft, but nothing in the market really changed.
  • Rule either of the above, but in a way that leaves too much room for interpretation, which will cause any action to be delayed a few years more and then become meaningless.
  • Rule something, leaving the door too wide open. Browsers aren’t exactly the only part of the OS core installation that could be considered as unnecessary bundling. Firewall and security suites come to mind first, but there are more. If Opera wins, there will be a queue of competitors in Brussels waiting to get their installers onto Windows setup media.

Were I the Commission, I’d dismiss the case for now. If Microsoft starts slacking again or uses further anticompetitive measures, that would warrant re-examination. As it is now, it looks like Redmond is already tasting its own poison in the way of IE’s diminishing market share. And even if other browsers need to match IE’s distribution advantage, it need not be setup time. Sufficiently easy-to-use software download offering post-setup should provide sufficient visibility with far less confusion. Making the IE user interface (not the whole binary) optional might also be an option.

As a concluding remark: The more extreme measures the Commission picks, the more tension builds up. First it will be competitors in other software categories against Microsoft. But the inevitable next target is Google, who has built sufficient mass and service diversity to start facing the same kind of problems, particularly once their cloud service set hits the market seriously. It ain’t easy being big.

June 9, 2009 · Jouni Heikniemi · 2 Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Web

2 Responses

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