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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8 Responses to “Of Microsoft and the European Union”

  1. Ted Wood says:

    Thankfully, IE’s share of the market is slipping. This is partly due to MS’s incompetence in creating a decent browser. Unfortunately, end users quite often judge the quality of a browser by how fast it loads up, and IE definitely has the edge there. Combined with the general complacency of users, it continues to have a tight grip on most users. However, a large portion of this is controlled environments like businesses and schools.

    I do want to take issue with this line:
    “Oh well, even Apple’s programmers make stupid mistakes.”

    Fine, make the statement, but back it up with something solid. Don’t just toss it in there to try and balance out the argument.

  2. @ Ted Wood: Well, I think the Mac troubleshooting sites, at the times when they were actually correct (which doesn’t happen as often as it should) have singled out a few instances of silly mistakes from Apple, and rapid updates to fix them.

    How about the original release of Leopard, where a Finder “move” bug could cause a file to become damaged or corrupted. 🙂


  3. adam says:

    I would be surprised if the EU went after Apple for including Safari on all Macs. The key difference being that you will not hose your operating system if you delete Safari, unlike IE. If there were any issue, Apple could go back to the mid – late 1990’s by including Firefox, or even Opera as well as Safari.


  4. @ adam: True as far as it goes. But remember that other programs on your Mac that perform Web access use the WebKit, which is the core of Safari. So you can remove the app, but its rendering engine remains in the system.


  5. adam says:

    @ Gene

    Also true as far as it goes, but WebKit is an open source project and is cross platform. And once again, none of those other apps are required to be on your system. I don’t know what it is like on XP or Vista (and I hope it’s much better) but I tried removing IE from an earlier version of Windows (98 SE or WIN 2000, don’t remember) and Windows Explorer blew up. Literally I could not access anything directly in the GUI. That is the uber-integration that gave Microsoft the big black eye and that is what Mac OS and OS X have never had to worry about.

    Yes the WebKit rendering system remains, but you are not required to use it and it is most certainly not proprietary. Install Chrome on your PC and WebKit will be there then, too.

  6. Michael says:

    “… would the European Union want to go after Apple, too, because Safari is included on all new Macs as standard issue?”

    But inclusion of a browser in itself isn’t a problem. As I understand it the problem is that you can’t use an existing monopoly to leverage another monopoly in a different market. Microsoft wasn’t punished by the US DOJ for *being* a monopoly but for misusing that monopoly position (in desktop OSes) to do just that – to gain a monopoly in another market (the “browser market”). And that didn’t just mean including a browser. It meant making it difficult to remove IE, and even worse stuff like putting pressure on OEMs who distributed Netscape on new PCs not to. IIRC, it also meant “persuading” its “partners” to do stuff like change their websites to only work with Microsoft’s own proprietary ActiveX controls that IE used.

    Apple hasn’t a monopoly in desktop operating systems – in fact, it’s still a fringe player – so isn’t in a position to leverage or in any way “misuse” one.

    As for Opera, it does run on Linux as well as Windows and OS X. As you say, it’s share on the desktop is small. However, it’s been said before that since it supports user-agent spoofing out of the box – I think at one time it was actually set *by default* to incorrectly report itself to websites as IE – its usage may be higher than surveys suggest. I understand it is quite widely used on mobile devices such as smartphones.

    Anyway, good luck to Opera – although I’m not myself a user of their software, preferring Safari, Firefox, and Camino.

  7. rwahrens says:

    I agree with Michael, the current kerfloofle with the EU is all about being a monopoly AND using it to leverage a monopoly in another market, or more to the point, maintaining a monopoly once illegally obtained.

    The DOJ proved that IE was too integrated into the OS to be removed. Even when MS brought its experts into the courtroom to show it could be removed, the crippled OS crashed afterwards!

    I do desktop support, and have for ten years, and we have never figured out how to remove IE from a Windows machine. You have to either reinstall it or back down to the previous version.

    Removal is NOT an option.

    On a Mac, I CAN remove Safari, and I CAN use another browser. If MS still produced their IE for the Mac, I could use that.

    The ability to remove a program and use a competing product is what this is all about.

  8. Maynard says:

    You getting kickbacks?

    MS have abused their market position ever since they were founded. Leaning on developers, competitors, retailers, making it difficult or impossible for any other company; making folks crawl. Treating their customers and partners like morons.

    Now they’re on the defensive. And guess what, the products and services are at long last getting better, about time! :

    The help file in Windows 7 actually helps you. Thats a first from MS. I don’t think they can keep it up. They must have subcontracted that job to the cleaning company.

    They’ve cut bloat from Vista. Well sort of.

    But they still don’t learn:

    DRM is still in Windows 7 eating up to 20% of your computers power and adding to global warming. It runs pretty hard even when there’s no music or videos playing. Video DRM can hijack half a Gigabyte of your RAM. Nobody will tell you that officially, ever. Too scared of the consequences. You can’t even capture your own video stream on the same computer, you have to send it to another one. Does that sound like they’ve go the message yet? Why the heck is an OS company worrying about DRM when everything on the net is about copying. Viewing this page I just copied all your scripts and pictures. Gonna sue me?

    Oh yeah, and I shook my head when I read further in the beta Windows 7 help – it has a a little link at the bottom of the page that says ” ..ask your friends, ask on the web, get help all over”, stuff like that .as if we hadn’t been forced to do that for the last 10 years just to keep their junk running. Fortunately a small, then unknown, company helped us a lot. They got popular for that reason. You know them as Google. They kept Windows running.

    MS should just be auctioned off and run on a maintenance basis like a Wiki Then we might get some good new ideas in the business.

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