Internet Explorer bundling issue resolved with force – what now?

Just a couple of days ago I wrote on the European Commission’s attempt to dislodge IE from Windows. It would appear Microsoft’s recent unbundling move made things a whole lot more interesting.

Yesterday’s key announcement was that Windows 7 would be shipped as “E” versions ("Windows 7 Home Premium E” and such) in Europe. The E versions would be otherwise equal to normal Windows, but come without Internet Explorer 8. Microsoft’s own commentary appends to this, stating also that non-E-versions won’t be shipped. And Redmond also states that the move was not made in co-operation with the European Commission, meaning that the matter might not be thus settled. What gives?

First of all, the following points are of essence:

  • While Europe won’t be seeing a Windows 7 version with the browser, computer manufacturers (aka OEMs) are still free to preinstall whichever browser they want, including IE.
  • Microsoft will make Internet Explorer available for free on a CD, available in stores where retail packages of IE 8 will be sold. Thus, nobody should be left without a browser.
  • Even the E versions will contain the necessary engine elements for API and programming compatibility as well as the parts necessary to drive HTML-based local applications such as the help subsystem.

The consumer takes the blow

The end user has to bother installing the browser unless she gets Windows preinstalled. Although installing IE will be a snap, it will still be one step more than just using Windows. The most painful episodes will be seen when a preinstalled computer has a hard drive crash and the user must reinstall the OS, usually without decent preparation and sufficient resources.

Alternate browsers are pretty much as available as their vendors make them. If we start seeing Firefox CDs into stores, that will balance things to some extent. So the end user can, and actually has to make a choice between browsers. The key problem is that she probably doesn’t want to choose between options that are pretty hard to differentiate and seem to make no difference to her.

Opera and Firefox lose, OEMs and Google win

Now that IE supposedly no longer has its key distribution benefit, Opera and Firefox should be on a more level ground. Technically that’s pretty much where they are, although Microsoft has over ten years of advantage in terms of OEM deals, marketing experience and the like. Nonetheless, there are now pretty few constraints to alternate browsers’ distribution. Then again, Europe has been in the leading edge of Firefox adoption all these years, so few European citizens are likely to feel a surge of freedom at this juncture.

Unfortunately, the ground Opera and Firefox stand upon is far more familiar to Microsoft. They must now rely on marketing and contractual means to achieve more browser penetration. That is likely be remarkably hard for them, a fact that Microsoft is probably counting on. For them, getting EC to force Microsoft into carrying alternate browsers within Windows would have been the jackpot. This new browserless Windows 7 situation, while technically pretty much what they were asking for, is a real challenge to exploit.

OEMs are the clear winners here: Now that the mandatory IE is out of the way, they can sell the premier browser position to whichever browser vendor comes with most cash. Given that Mozilla and Opera have rather limited financial resources, I have zero problem imagining Dell or HP desktops coming with Google Chrome preinstalled. And while they’re at it, other Google applications would be the logical next step.

So did we just witness a power transfer from one monopoly to another?

EC vs. Microsoft continues

The Commission wasn’t ecstatic about Microsoft’s decision – no surprise there. The decision on the actual case is still pending. EC’s key point is that Microsoft doesn’t provide more choice as the Commission wanted, but rather less. The commission would really want to see the ballot screen (see my previous post), but now that they can no longer argue its necessity from a browser bundling standpoint, their options are even more limited.

EC can dismiss the case; that would make sense given that the majority of the IE distribution monopoly has now been opened through the OEM channel. The 5% retail market won’t make such a big difference. But they can also demand Microsoft to ship a selection of browsers and the dreaded ballot screen as earlier discussed. That, however, would force the Commission to take a stance on which applications must be shipped with an operating system, a task very ill-suited for an administrative body.

Microsoft’s move exposes Internet Explorer to more competition, but also dulls many of the Commission’s blades. It is also a move very much in the free market spirit: The avenue to becoming the default browser in Windows 7 is far more open than before, but free lunch buffet didn’t appear – at least not yet. Instead, the pole position can be bought through OEM deals.

Well, that’s market economy, the same key tenet the European Union is pretty much founded on. If the EC decides to support the financially lesser browser vendors by demanding the ballot screen, buy popcorn. The oncoming debate will involve enough communism references to amuse a crowd.

June 12, 2009 · Jouni Heikniemi · 2 Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Web

2 Responses

  1. Heikniemi Hardcoded » Which gwaddagak would you pick? - June 22, 2009

    […] All the noise about adding a browser choice ballot screen on Windows Installation, and who even knows how to use all that power of selection? […]

  2. Orpha Huguenin - January 12, 2021

    You actually make it seem really easy with your presentation however I find this matter to be actually something that I feel I might never understand. It kind of feels too complicated and very vast for me. I am taking a look forward on your subsequent post, I’ll attempt to get the grasp of it!

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