Microsoft and Browser Choice: A Solution or a Trick?

September 29th, 2009

All right, this won’t really impact readers outside of Europe in any meaningful way, but it should. In response to a European Union edict to offer Windows users a choice of browsers, Microsoft has devised a ballot box scheme to allow you to make your selection.

Did I say scheme?

Well, if you can believe the critics, a widely-published representation of a proposed Microsoft solution stacks the deck sufficiently to scare people off choosing something other than Internet Explorer 8. So they may be following the letter of the law, but the spirit is something else again.

How so?

Well, the screen shot I’ve seen puts the ballot box in an Internet Explorer 8 browser window. If that’s the case, Microsoft is already cheating by preloading new PCs with its own browser. That’s bad enough, but evidently clicking on a browser choice takes you through several windows and a bunch of frightening warning messages before you can download and install the browser you want. If that’s the case, you can see where a fair number of Windows users would just decide that the cure is worse than the disease and stick with the pathetic browser they already have.

Sure, this proposal is not yet final, and I will grant that the complicated selection methodology may be the result of the fact that Microsoft really hasn’t a clue about designing simple user interfaces. Something that shouldn’t require more than two or three steps thus requires twice as many, and a simple user agreement ought to cover the essentials about installing a different browser. But no doubt Microsoft’s lawyers are also well versed in making the simple complex.

Let’s be fair about this. I doubt that the European Union’s technical people would be foolish enough to allow Microsoft to get away with this misbegotten strategy. Consider when the EU demanded that Microsoft provide documentation on interoperability of their server software for third parties. After taking months and months to complete an initial draft, the people assigned to review the material pronounced it incomprehensible. So either Microsoft was unable to explain to anyone in clear, concise language how to use their products, or they decided that it was better to just confuse people, so maybe they’d give up trying to use a competitor’s app.

Or maybe Microsoft builds products first, and then goes back and tries to figure out what they did and how the end user can actually make them function.

In the end, there will probably be a simpler solution for this ballot box, one that doesn’t confuse and befuddle customers. What I wonder is why this isn’t being done in other countries, because it’s really a sensible answer to giving Windows users a choice, other than just switching to a Mac of course.

Unfortunately, Microsoft won’t do such a thing voluntarily. Instead, it would require action from the U.S. antitrust people and similar regulatory authorities around the world. It is highly unlikely that’s going to happen anytime soon, or ever. At the same time, more and more Windows users are deserting the insecure environment of Internet Explorer in favor of Firefox, Safari, Opera, Google Chrome and other alternatives. Sure Microsoft’s unstable CEO, Steve Ballmer, might regard the market share of some of these apps as “rounding errors,” but as more and more people decide to give Internet Explorer the heave ho, maybe they’ll get the message and realize that there is actually a great solution for this dilemma.

Early on, in addition to Microsoft’s well-known anticompetitive practices, they actually made Internet Explorer superior to Netscape on both the Mac and Windows platforms. Do you remember when Netscape become a slow, bloated mess and MSIE was a leaner, meaner alternative? Yes, I’m serious.

Today, despite the competition and a rapidly dwindling market share, Internet Explorer has been shown to be inferior to all of the competitors in nearly every respect. It’s slower, less stable, and renders complicated standards-based Web sites less accurately. Despite having tremendous resources to build superior products, Microsoft has shown over and over again that they just can’t make it happen. Why?

Are we to conclude that the tens of thousands of developers at Microsoft just don’t have the talent to do a credible job and that the far smaller staffs at Apple, Mozilla and Opera have all the chops? It’s easy to call the world’s largest software company incompetent, but I think the problem is more complicated. I’ve little doubt that, with proper leadership, MSIE’s developers could also create a super-fast browser that meets all the prevailing Web standards. What’s more, I think they could get the job done in probably no more than a year, if they were given the proper direction to embark on such a product.

Alas, the bigwigs at Microsoft, from the inhabitants of executive suite to the various department heads, don’t seem to have a clue how to make something better. Yes, I realize that the Zune HD is getting pretty positive reviews, and maybe Microsoft has found its way with their newest media player, although they’re two years late. But that is the exception that proves the rule.

When it comes to browsers, there’s still time for Microsoft to deliver a competitive and even a superior product, and make it run on the Mac and Linux too. But Steve Ballmer and his minions may be master salespeople, but they are otherwise utterly incompetent.

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5 Responses to “Microsoft and Browser Choice: A Solution or a Trick?”

  1. Lawrence Rhodes says:

    Or maybe Microsoft builds products first, and then goes back and tries to figure out what they did and how the end user can actually make them function.

    That’s certainly my experience with them. It became a popular saying at our company that if the Word or Excel manual said you could do something, you probably could, but probably not in the way that was described.

  2. JP says:

    Some politician or court has forced MS to add this ridiculous ‘choice’ screen, when users already have a choice. If they are savvy enough and REALLY wanted to install another browser, they could do so. Those who aren’t savvy enough, didn’t really care one way or another and just want things as simple as possible.

    Now, we get non-savvy users being presented with a choice they don’t understand, and they end up calling their suppliers helpdesk (I work in such a place) asking what they should install. We would either just say – install IE (easiest choice), or say we have to remain impartial, which just frustrates the user.

    BAD BAD MOVE. It just generates more technical calls for us and confuses the user.

  3. Madeline Morgan says:

    Internet Explorer 8 is very good because it is as stable as Opera. I hate the previous versions of IE like IE6 because it hangs frequently. ‘

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