Microsoft's browser bundling battle is over (for this decade, at least)

Microsoft's browser bundling battle is over (for this decade, at least)

Summary: Microsoft started this past decade in the midst of a fight over whether Internet Explorer (IE) was part of Windows (in U.S. antitrust courts in the U.S. Department of Justice vs. Microsoft case). The company ended it the same way in the European Union -- but deciding this time to settle rather than fight.

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Microsoft started this past decade in the midst of a fight over whether Internet Explorer (IE) was part of Windows (in U.S. antitrust courts in the U.S. Department of Justice vs. Microsoft case). The company ended it the same way in the European Union -- but deciding this time to settle rather than fight.

On December 16, the European Commission announced it had agreed to Microsoft's concessions in the Opera vs. Microsoft case. By agreeing to offer Windows users a ballot screen of browser choices, the Softies were able to avoid fines or other EC-imposed remedies. The outcome: European PC users running XP, Vista and/or Windows 7 will be getting ballot screens, listing a total of 12 browser choices, one of which will be IE.  (The top five -- IE, Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera -- will be listed more prominently than the other seven, AOL, Maxthon, K-Meleon, Flock, Avant Browser, Sleipnir and Slim Browser.)

Here's Microsoft's statement and documentation outlining its browser commitments, as well as what it's proposing to do to ease interoperability between Windows, Windows Server, SharePoint, Exchange and third-party products -- another arena the EC has been investigating.

From a December 16 blog post by Mozilla Foundation Chair Mitchell Baker, it sounds like Microsoft also will be eliminating any pop-up Windows which might redirect users to IE and away from alternatives. Mozilla also was against Microsoft listing the top five ballot entries alphabetically by vendor; I'm not sure so far whether that concession ended up as part of the final settlement. Update: Yes, it looks like that concession is part of the ballot, as the browser order is being generated randomly. Here's a sample of the final ballot screen:

Microsoft originally fought hard against the browser ballot -- to the point where the company almost went so far as to create a whole new Windows 7 SKU (Windows 7E) that wouldn't provide a way for users to get on the Internet and choose a browser. Happily, someone, somewhere at the company put the brakes on that idea before it went too far. Microsoft didn't need a costly, drawn-out battle that might mar the reputation of Windows 7 on its hands. As hard as it might have been for executives accustomed to battling, this time Microsoft decided it was better to switch than fight.

Many readers of this blog have been vocal critics of the browser ballot. Who doesn't know you have a choice of browsers and how to download them from the Web, many of you have asked. As I've said before: Tech savvy readers like yourselves know this, but many average consumers do not. They don't know IE is a browser and many don't know there are other choices or which companies offer them. That's why I've been a fan of the idea of a browser ballot since it was first proposed. Instead of allowing Microsoft to sit on its laurels and make occasional enhancements to its browser whenever the spirit moves it, a ballot fosters more competition -- and, I'd argue -- better browsers from Microsoft and others.

So Microsoft's browser-bundling troubles are over. For this decade. I wouldn't be surprised to see Microsoft enmeshed in yet another browser-bundling suit in the coming decade, perhaps with Google as one of the behind-the-scenes instigators. That said, given that Google is bundling its own Chrome browser into its Chrome OS, it might have a pretty flimsy case....

If I were CEO Steve Ballmer, the last ten years would make me rethink whether bundling IE with Windows is worth the continued legal risks. I'd be inclined to make a browser ballot the default on Windows PCs everywhere, not just Europe. Yes, decoupling IE from Windows would be a risky strategy, given IE's overall market share is continuing to erode (it's at 62 percent or so in Europe, according to some figures) and with more and more developers vetoing IE because it isn't WebKit-based and not compliant enough with emerging Web standards.

But if Microsoft really does believe IE is the fastest and most secure browser out there, why not give users a true choice?

Topics: Windows, Browser, Microsoft

About

Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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108 comments
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  • Mary Jo your logic is flawed this time

    Yes, only tech savy people know there are other browsers and that is all that is needed. Tech savy people help their friends and family with their computers and they will download it for them. The Ballot screen is so unfair to other browsers - there are more than 12 browsers out there. What if I come up with a browser tomorrow and want to get in the ballot screen - it would be unfair to tell me no. If they want more people to see they can talk to more OEMs about preinstalling them and they can get install disks to be distributed in stores. In any case they should pay for their own distribution.
    Djblois
    • Go for it

      If you make a browser tomorrow that shows up on two out of three market usage reports (Net Applications, StatCounter, and ComScore) for Europe, your browser will be added to the ballot.
      asadotzler
      • That shoudl not matter

        That is unfair to people creating a browser. Talking about unfair business Practices - the EU just advocated and pushed for a Browser that makes the browser market more unfair!
        Djblois
      • Absolutely Fantastic. Insightful comment; NOT

        "If you make a browser tomorrow that shows up on two out of three market usage reports (Net Applications, StatCounter, and ComScore) for Europe, your browser will be added to the ballot."

        All this legal action did was to solidify in stone that Windows operating systems in Europe will now be the primary contact for the vast majority of the populations exposure to web browsers in general.

        No longer will nearly as many people, as the few who currently do, bother to look for alternatives that might rank as a fourth, fifth, sixth or beyond ranked browser. How likely is an upstart in the following months, that doesn't exist on the Windows ballot, have anyone bother to do the work to even 'stumble' upon them in a search for alternatives??

        If there are 12 possible browsers available on Windows ballot screen one would be likely to correctly assume that the 12 have been selected as the 12 most popular/best choices. Where is the inspiration to go looking to see if one can find #13 somewhere out on the internet when #1 to #12 are freely available on the Windows ballot screen anyway??

        Its like putting all the top 12 of anything together in a readily available location for free; unless your just the super curious type why go hunting for #13??

        New and upcoming competition that ranks outside the favored 12 will be rapidly obliterated. The ability to be ranked among the top 12 browsers will suddenly be a furious and bloodthirsty competition that Microsoft will always be to at least some degree saddled with even though they have no dog in the fight on 11 out of the 12 browsers.

        Stifle competition for the new up and comers? Oh yes.

        And whats next? What clever individual decides that browser monopoly isn't where the Windows monopoly ends? Whats next? Media players? Messaging systems? Calculators? Will Windows end up being nothing more then a collection of ballot boxes to be methodically sifted through in order that you can finally install your OS??

        This is a brutally obvious Pandora's box that has been pried open and I suspect the way it turns out, in the not to overly long run, people will be surprised to see how this kind of thinking changes how business is done in the OS world.
        Cayble
  • Great! Now where's the Text Editor ballot?

    Or the Media Player ballot? Or the Calculator or Paint ballots?

    And what about Spider Solitaire! Surely it's unfair to other Spider Solitaire vendors that Windows only includes their version! Let's baffle users with a dizzying array of unnecessary choices, cause that's just what they want.

    Of course - Mac and Ubuntu will be providing these ballots in Europe too, right? Right?
    pjduncan
    • Image Editor Ballot...

      I'm excited to load up OSX for the first time and select Windows Paint as my image editing software of choice. :)
      Mechageo
    • you mis-understand the law

      The EC found that Microsoft had abused its dominant market position with Windows, giving IE an unfair advantage. That's their law. Under that law, Mac and Ubuntu don't have dominant market positions so they're not able to leverage a dominant market position to push other products.
      asadotzler
      • That goes against the law

        Everyone is subject to the same laws and when you create a corporation the corporation in the eyes of the law is also a person therefore they are all subject to the same laws. You cannot make it illegal for one company to do anything and another it is legal - Being a monopoly is not against the law - having unfair business practices is against the law. Legally, you cannot argue retroactively either - if it was legal for Microsoft to bundle before they had the market share than it would still be legal now that they have the market share.
        Djblois
        • Going against the law

          Actually, being a monopoly is against the law.
          That's the reason Microsoft had to split into two
          seperate entities back in the day, to not be
          considered a monopoly. It's capitalism 101. To
          give every company in the market a fair chance to
          flourish, you cannot monopolize a given sector or
          demographic.
          sephi7ac
          • Wrong again

            Wrong again - I study economics and law. Being a Monopoly is not illegal performing Monopolistic practices is illegal. Eco 101 as you put it only says that Monopolies are bad for the market because they can fix prices - that is all you get in Eco.
            Djblois
          • Bundling IE was considered a Monopolistic practice

            That's the subject of the European case: they required a ballot because bundling IE was considered a Monopolistic practice against other software vendors (the practice name is "trust", in case you are not that advanced in your studies) .

            Also there's the whole problem of controlling the web formats and standards when you have such dominance: it is not only about browsers, it is also protection against a single company defining (or trying to stop) the development of the web (for example, because of IE6's lack of updates the development of many web technologies stagnated).
            tim.hobbes
          • Yes but the bundling is unfair

            to Other software vendors who create Browsers - so they are saying Microsoft is hurting competition by bundling but then they create a screen that will hurt competition even more for any browser that does not show up in the 12.
            Djblois
    • What about Safari?

      Aside from the issue being that of market dominance, the bundled product must be that of the OS manufacturer. While Safari is a Mac product, Ubuntu bundles a Mozilla product - Firefox. Though I am no legal expert, I believe that open source is not subject to such laws. Since Apple was instrumental in the original browser issues for M$, I wonder if they will comply with a ballot out of fairness, or if they will sit comfortably in their minimal market share and wiggle their noses at the OS giant.
      PhotoIT
    • They don't need too

      Only when Mac or Ubuntu control 90% of the operating system market they will obliged to provide a ballot. Until then, they are inoffensive.
      tim.hobbes
    • believe it or nor

      in Europe you can choose to get win 7 without Media Player bundled.
      mark16_15@...
  • The ballot entries will be random

    Ref pg. 5, para. 13 of the document listed under Browser Choice "Microsoft Commitments":
    "...These five web browsers will be displayed in random order each time the Choice Screen is presented. The remaining seven browsers will be displayed if the user scrolls sideways and will also be displayed in random order."
    TheBTwin
    • it does not loook fair to me

      why only the first five browsers are displayed and the other 7 are hidden.
      This will efectively kill them for good.
      Linux Geek
      • When I load Linux FireFox is loaded already

        how is that not "killing" all of the others any different. At least the other 4 get face time. In Linux you have to know to download the others just like Windows does for IE.
        TheBottomLineIsAllThatMatters
        • I don't think it's difficult to obtain Linux without Firefox.

          Apparently there's this thing called Konqueror, for instance. I haven't used it but I gather it's there instead of Firefox.

          In fact, with regular Firefox security fixes necessary - version 3.5.6 is released as I write - I don't know if anyone has dared to include one version on a Linux "distribution". The older edition is now out of date and unsafe.
          Robert Carnegie 2009
          • I was just curious...in my limited opinion it's the same

            as loading IE on Windows. Granted there is another choice Konqurer and I don't use that either. But with Windows I have IE and Chrome - hate Chrome and don't use it - but I have both and I just added - no biggie.
            TheBottomLineIsAllThatMatters