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When is a browser bigger than the platform it runs on?

Posted on 15th Jun 2009 at 11:52 by Tim Smalley with 16 comments

Tim Smalley
Whether or not Microsoft's decision to ship Windows 7 without a browser goes ahead, there are still other ways that it could, in theory, attempt to control the browser market with potentially underhand tactics. That, if anything, is what the EU should be looking at in its latest antitrust case against the software giant.

For instance, I've heard suggestions that Microsoft could tie OEM's Windows marketing money to Internet Explorer bundling in Europe - that's wrong if it happens and Microsoft should be punished if found guilty of such business practices.

Computing is moving into the cloud - we're moving to a model where your data will be available on any device with an Internet connection and a web browser. If you look at things in that way, the operating system is becoming less important and the browser is now more important than ever. With that in mind, it's easy to see why Opera is fighting so hard to have the EU intervene regarding Internet Explorer.

I detest Internet Explorer and I have no reason to like it at all (I used Microsoft's convenient 'disable IE' option in Windows 7's Control Panel once I'd downloaded Firefox and Chrome), but it's a Microsoft-provided tool that enables people to get online, and if necessary, to grab a different browser if we feel it isn't sufficient.

Most people probably believe it is sufficient, but for those that don't it'd be nice if we were offered some kind of choice by the OS - but is Microsoft realistically going to start shipping Windows with other browsers? Of course it won't. If that is what the EU wants, then that is what it needs to order Microsoft to do. But then who's responsibility is it to support that software if it's made available via Windows Update? It shouldn't be Microsoft's and it shouldn't have to pay the bandwidth bill.

Microsoft's decision to remove Internet Explorer was the only real choice it could make on its own and, unfortunately, that means Windows 7 is broken because you won't be able to upgrade from a previous version of Windows and keep your settings. Whether it would be technically possible to upgrade or not is another matter.

Is Microsoft using scare tactics? Quite possibly, but on the flip side it could be true - only Microsoft and those familiar with the Windows code base can say for sure.

Part of the reason why I find this particular antitrust case ridiculous is because the issues it tries to tackle are nearly ten years old. Microsoft essentially kicked Netscape out of the market using underhand tactics and that was wrong, but nothing was really done about it at the time. Microsoft built up a huge advantage in the browser market because of that and it wasn't until Firefox came along that many people realised how much better life could be without IE.

I believe Microsoft should be able to ship Windows with its own web browser (and no others) because a browser is a key part of a modern operating system now that most of our digital life is stored online. An OS without a browser is not a fully functional one.

For it to be fair to other browser makers though, there should be conditions by which Microsoft must adhere:
  • The browser must adhere to web standards
  • The user must be able to uninstall it
  • The user must be able to install an alternative
  • It must not be embedded into the OS in such a way that removing it 'breaks' the OS if an alternative browser is installed
  • The user must not be punished (with poor performance, instabilities, etc) if they choose an alternative browser
This is what the EU should be forcing on Microsoft and every other OS maker out there to do with any device that connects to the Internet. Let's take the iPhone for example - Apple does not allow third parties to make browsers for the platform, never mind install them alongside Mobile Safari. It does not allow third parties to write Mail applications either, even though both apps are limited in many respects.

In the PC market specifically, this route would allow other browser makers to enter talks with OEMs to work out deals to get their browsers installed on new PCs exclusively, meaning there'd be no trace of Internet Explorer at all on many systems. If it isn't already, the browser market will be dominated by money in the future and unless the EU bans co-op marketing funds associated with browser bundling, the guy with the biggest pockets will always have the most browser installs in the OEM market. At that point, the question is whether outbidding your competitors to bundle otherwise free software on new PCs is classed as anti-competitive or not.

16 Comments

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yodasarmpit 15th June 2009, 13:03 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by article
The user must be able to uninstall it
That option could potentially leave a high percentage of MS users without a method to connect to the net :)
Tim S 15th June 2009, 13:09 Quote
It could, but there could be some kind of check to see if other browsers are installed. If there aren't other browsers installed (or isn't a different browser set as the default), it would be quite easy for Microsoft to display a notification along the lines of "you're about to remove the only web browser installed on this machine, are you sure you want to proceed?"

That would, in theory, be a solution to the problem and there could always be a recovery option in Control Panel which allows you to reinstall IE if you've done the dumb thing. :)
steveo_mcg 15th June 2009, 13:12 Quote
Yeah i can see some one poking around the windows components control panel not thinking it through and clicking remove IE to save 80mb of hard disk space then finding they could no longer get their gmail....

Tim, good post much more balance than your last mini rant :D. I agree MS shouldn't be forced to include another browser but the included one must be stand alone and not completely integrated into the OS.
ch424 15th June 2009, 13:19 Quote
Quote:
The browser must adhere to web standards
This seems unfair - Firefox doesn't pass Acid3 either - should Canonical be prevented from bundling it with Ubuntu?
Quote:
The user must be able to uninstall it
The user must be able to install an alternative
It must not be embedded into the OS in such a way that removing it 'breaks' the OS if an alternative browser is installed
The user must not be punished (with poor performance, instabilities, etc) if they choose an alternative browser
Aren't all these things true already?
mclean007 15th June 2009, 13:26 Quote
In my view, MS should not be barred from including IE, but as you say it should not be so tightly hooked into the OS that it can't be effectively removed without breaking things. There is no reason why MS shouldn't use its own browser engine for things like Windows Update, Help etc., and this could be extended to a pre-installed micro-browser whose sole function is to connect to an MS portal and allow the user to download a browser of their choice (Firefox, IE, Chrome, Safari, Opera etc.) MS shouldn't have to host these, they should be hosted by the publisher. This means (a) users have to make a positive choice to use IE (which in my view addresses the EU's principal concern), (b) MS isn't forced to bundle software from other publishers, and (c) users always get an up to date browser from the start, with all the latest security patches etc.
Tim S 15th June 2009, 13:30 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by steveo_mcg
Tim, good post much more balance than your last mini rant :D. I agree MS shouldn't be forced to include another browser but the included one must be stand alone and not completely integrated into the OS.

Yes, the last post was a bit of a rant... partly because I think the whole thing is completely ridiculous - the issues should been tackled a long time ago, but they weren't for one reason or another. Now is not the time, IMO.
Quote:
Originally Posted by ch424
Quote:
The browser must adhere to web standards
This seems unfair - Firefox doesn't pass Acid3 either - should Canonical be prevented from bundling it with Ubuntu?
No, but it should make a decent effort to adhere to web standards. 21/100 in Acid3 isn't exactly a great showing in that respect. Firefox's showing is much stronger.
Quote:
Quote:
The user must be able to uninstall it
The user must be able to install an alternative
It must not be embedded into the OS in such a way that removing it 'breaks' the OS if an alternative browser is installed
The user must not be punished (with poor performance, instabilities, etc) if they choose an alternative browser
Aren't all these things true already?
Most of them are already true, yes, but you can't completely uninstall Internet Explorer without third party tools. You can disable it, which some would argue is a happy medium, but I believe the option to remove it altogether should be there.
yakyb 15th June 2009, 15:13 Quote
Quote:

The browser must adhere to web standards

what is the point in webstandards when all companies just ignore them i realise IE8 is a step in the right direction fo MS but realistically all browsers should at least get the rendering correct
Hugo 16th June 2009, 01:03 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tim S
You can disable it, which some would argue is a happy medium, but I believe the option to remove it altogether should be there.
Not to mention a number of applications - Windows Media Player for example - 'cheat' by embedding Internet Explorer windows into their interface for some functionality, on Vista and XP for certain, at least so you definitely have the issue of reduced usability were it removed entirely.
stoff3r 16th June 2009, 22:44 Quote
Microsoft should leave browser-developement to somebody more capable.
The_Beast 16th June 2009, 23:47 Quote
This is so stupid, Microsoft can do anything it wants to it's own products
noveltylamp 23rd June 2009, 03:03 Quote
You know what you're getting when you buy Windows, an OS along with all the tools you need for basic computing, a word processor, a basic image editor, a file manager and of course a web browser and media player. This is just the same as any Linux distro or Mac OS. I want to buy Windows with all these things I expect included in the box, with an option to untick what I don't require when installing. To force Microsoft to remove these completely is just plain silly and whoever likes the option to install MSIE and WMP being taken away completely probably doesn't use Windows anyway. Why is no-one kicking off because they've bundled Write and Paintbrush for years, oh yes and Calc - surely they're doing Casio out of the interactive computer calculator market!
jamesthebard 23rd June 2009, 06:55 Quote
It's a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't situation. Either keep IE bundled with Windows which, due to market penetration, inhibits other browsers from making any headway, or leave out IE which means you've got to get to the web via other methods.

I agree, I'm not a huge fan of IE myself but the crux of it is this: a modern OS needs an internet browser. How much of your 'computer experience' is based on being able to browse and interact with websites.

To make this work, you have to do one of the following: (1) allow Microsoft to bundle IE with Windows, (2) allow users to pick from a list of browsers when they install/initially start Windows, or (3) force Microsoft to conform to standards. (1) is bad, (2) makes me smile at the thought of the inherent chaos in the would-be selection system, and (3) was almost realized until Microsoft went back to it's policy of having to opt-in for standards compliancy mode.

It's a bad situation for consumers no matter what happens.
dec 23rd June 2009, 14:05 Quote
of the web browser makers doesnt microsoft have the biggest pockets and can thereby out bid everyone else? The list of browsers at OS install seems to be the best method to me. Its not perfect but it works. Theres only like 4 or 5 browsers out there anyways. (IE, Firefox, Opera, Chrome)
jamesthebard 23rd June 2009, 21:26 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by dec
of the web browser makers doesnt microsoft have the biggest pockets and can thereby out bid everyone else? The list of browsers at OS install seems to be the best method to me. Its not perfect but it works. Theres only like 4 or 5 browsers out there anyways. (IE, Firefox, Opera, Chrome)

They could, but if they (hypothetically, of course) were forced to bundle other browsers with their OS then there wouldn't be a problem with keeping IE with Windows 7. But it is a good point: which browsers do you include?

You could say popularity/marketshare, but then how many do you add to the default install? Firefox, Opera, and Chrome are good choices.

Reality is that Microsoft is being forced to remove a core part of their users 'experience'. I do not like Microsoft's business practices (or marketing campaigns) but this judgment will have a more severe impact on the people who are buying copies of Windows 7 than those purchasing new computers with Windows 7 on them. OEMs will throw a web-browser onto the machines they sell before sending them out, but people upgrading to Windows 7 might encounter a few more difficulties.
Cupboard 24th June 2009, 16:23 Quote
What is in it for Microsoft having their browser in a system? The only way I can see that they could make money from it is the search and the home screen if it left at default.

Rather than put resources towards a bad browser that artificially gets them a few extra hits, why not sort out their search and make it a place people want to go?
mi1ez 30th June 2009, 09:54 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by HugoB
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tim S
You can disable it, which some would argue is a happy medium, but I believe the option to remove it altogether should be there.
Not to mention a number of applications - Windows Media Player for example - 'cheat' by embedding Internet Explorer windows into their interface for some functionality, on Vista and XP for certain, at least so you definitely have the issue of reduced usability were it removed entirely.

Forget WMP, Steam has IE embedded in it, and that is my biggest worry. I'd like to see if Valve release a version of Steam that will run with whichever browser you have installed/set as default, but I can't see that happening somehow, so I for one will have IE installed. *sigh*
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