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  • Of Microsoft and the European Union

    January 19th, 2009

    It appears that Microsoft’s worst nightmare may not be Apple, but the European Union. Their most recent action, involving a Statement of Objection is, as others have observed, a throwback to the browser wars of the 1990s, where Internet Explorer decimated Netscape. Sure, Microsoft exploited its huge share of the PC market to trounce the competition in an unfair way. That was a major part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s own antitrust action.

    More to the point, I think Microsoft deserved what they got, and I don’t disagree that the penalties should have been more severe. No, I don’t necessarily feel that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer should have gone to jail for their offenses. That’s going a little too far, as far as I’m concerned.

    In Europe, the latest complaint of unfair behavior comes from Opera Software, which is an extremely minor player in the desktop browser market. Sure, Opera has pioneered some of the powerful features we take for granted today, such as tabs and so forth, but the company has never been able to achieve a market share of more than one or two percent. Even Apple’s Safari is way ahead.

    Understand that neither Mozilla nor Apple found it necessary to cry foul in the courts or to government agencies. Instead, they gained surprisingly robust market shares by dint of having better products, and as a result of Microsoft’s diminishing reputation in the industry.

    Today, Internet Explorer gets less than 69% of the market. Mozilla has over 20%. In response, Microsoft has actually promised superior support for Web standards with the forthcoming version 8. If it all comes to pass, it means that Webmasters won’t have to customize their code near as much to work in different ways with different browsers.

    You can’t imagine the sort of headaches that situation has caused in the past. When Internet Explorer had over 90% of the market, there were numerous sites that wouldn’t look right in anything else. That’s still true, in part, but the situation isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be. It’s amazing how simple competition can make a company change its ways.

    Indeed, Microsoft hasn’t had a lot of success it its efforts to stray beyond its core software and operating system market. While the Xbox has done all right, I’m not sure that Microsoft has quite lived down that severe defect, involving overheated game consoles, for which they allocated over a billion dollars for warranty repairs. And don’t forget the failing Zune music player, and that infamous New Year’s Eve fiasco where the original 30GB model wouldn’t operate because of a bug in the way its firmware measured time.

    Oh well, even Apple’s programmers make stupid mistakes.

    As far as Opera Software is concerned, I like the desktop browser fine on an intellectual level. The interface is decent enough, and the features are surprisingly expansive. The memory footprint seems low enough, considering there’s also a built-in email client that handles large numbers of messages with an appropriate level of speed.

    However, my emotional commitments remain with Firefox and Safari in the browser department. I use Apple Mail, and have tried to come to like Microsoft Entourage and Thunderbird without any success.

    So, as far as I’m concerned, Opera doesn’t quite do it for me. Apparently hundreds of millions of personal computer users around the world, regardless of whether they use the Mac OS or Windows, agree with me.

    Now maybe Opera Software somehow believes that a sympathetic European Union can change things, and somehow convince the public to embrace their browser. Maybe it’s even true that Microsoft didn’t abide by the laws of Europe in bundling Internet Explorer with Windows. But the loss of MSIE as part of Windows might create problems than it solves.

    You see, one of the key reasons people buy a PC is to get online. So does the European somehow expect Microsoft to craft deals with all the browser developers and give people a choice? What about the minor players in the business, or the customized Mozilla variations? Or are the PC makers supposed to negotiate their own contracts with the various browser developers, charging appropriate fees for a spot on the desktop of a new computer, just as they do with other software companies.

    In that instance, would Microsoft have to pay to get included? Apple too? Just how far does this concept extend, and would the European Union want to go after Apple, too, because Safari is included on all new Macs as standard issue?

    Does this all sound just a little absurd to you?

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