Last Friday a press release announced that the European Commission has sent a “Statement of Objections” to Microsoft. This is a formal notice that the EC is investigating objections made to Microsoft’s trade practices; in this case the tying of Internet Explorer to the Windows operating system.
The latest EC vs. Microsoft fight has entered its second round. Since browsers are involved, this conflict is important to web developers. If Opera gets its way, new Windows computers in the EU will have either zero or five browsers installed on them.
In December 2007 Opera filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft, and asked the EC to take two actions:
At the time I wrote an entry in which I was noncommittal on the first point. Unbundling is logical but pointless because nobody cares which browser he uses. (Meanwhile I changed my mind: unbundling is logical but so impractical as to make it impossible.)
I was downright afraid of the second request. Essentially Opera requested the EC to judge web standards implementations, thus giving it power over web standards.
That power does not belong to the EC, but to the international web standards community. Would web standards become a political pawn? (Fortunately, the answer turns out to be No.)
Friday’s press release is the next step in this fight. The crucial passage reads:
The evidence gathered during the investigation leads the Commission to believe that the tying of Internet Explorer with Windows, which makes Internet Explorer available on 90% of the world's PCs, distorts competition on the merits between competing web browsers insofar as it provides Internet Explorer with an artificial distribution advantage which other web browsers are unable to match.
The Commission is concerned that through the tying, Microsoft shields Internet Explorer from head to head competition with other browsers which is detrimental to the pace of product innovation and to the quality of products which consumers ultimately obtain.
In addition, the Commission is concerned that the ubiquity of Internet Explorer creates artificial incentives for content providers and software developers to design websites or software primarily for Internet Explorer which ultimately risks undermining competition and innovation in the provision of services to consumers.
Opera couldn’t resist crowing a bit; it’s obvious that this is a step in the right direction. Microsoft reacted businesslike, stating it has received the Statement of Objections and is preparing a response.
Under EU trust law the EC will only decide the case after Microsoft has had the chance to defend itself in writing, and, on request, in a hearing. Microsoft is given eight weeks to prepare the written defense and request a hearing. The next round will therefore take place in mid-March or so.
The EC will take a political decision, not a legal one. Either Opera or Microsoft could take the case to a European court if they don’t like it.
Fortunately the EC has refused Opera’s request to “require Microsoft to follow fundamental and open Web standards accepted by the Web-authoring communities.” The relevant sentence reads:
The Commission is concerned that the ubiquity of Internet Explorer creates artificial incentives [...] to design websites or software primarily for Internet Explorer.
It’s not IE’s standards support that is judged here, but its ubiquity. In fact, web standards aren’t even mentioned.
We won’t have to worry about political influence on web standards themselves; the EC has rightly decided to deal with the competition issue only. That’s the good news.
Now for the bad news. The more I think about it the more I feel that we can’t unbundle IE from Windows. If we did, any new Windows computer would have either zero or five browsers installed on it, and neither situation is ideal. On the other hand, the current situation isn’t ideal, either.
If we take the zero option, any new Windows box sold in the EU will have no browser installed on it.
How do you download a browser without a browser? I’m sure the clever crew here at QuirksMode can come up with a few solutions, but I’m also sure an average end user won’t have the faintest idea what to do.
Microsoft could help end users a bit by creating a pre-installed program that installs a browser for them — and guess which browser that would be? Thus it will have complied with the letter of the EC’s decision but will for all practical purposes have re-bundled IE. Besides, it will have genuinely served the end user’s needs.
But if we want new computers to have a pre-installed browser, we have to install all five. We can’t install one, or even two, three or four; ending the practice of some, but not all, browsers being pre-installed is the whole point of the complaint.
The five option would work, kind of, but giving a novice computer user five browsers to choose from is deadly to the user-experience. (In fact, in all the scenarios I could come up with it is the end user who pays the price of unbundling.)
This leads to a very confusing situation in which nobody wins and the end user loses. For these reasons I start to wonder if the unbundling can realistically be executed. Then again, if we do nothing Microsoft retains its advantage over the other browser vendors.
A nice little conundrum. I have no ready-made solution, so I pass the question on to the original plaintiff.
Opera, how would an end user get the Internet to work on his shiny new unbundled Windows computer? Which icon does he click? Which program starts up? What else does the end user have to do?
And what do you think, dear reader? Zero or five? Or one?
I’ll be around at the following conferences:
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