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

Written by Tim Smalley

June 15, 2009 // 11:52 a.m.

Tags: #antitrust #european-commission #internet-explorer #microsoft #opera

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.
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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.
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