For Microsoft, being underdog is the perfect antitrust defense

Mozilla and Google have complained that Microsoft is competing unfairly with its decision to block their desktop browsers in Windows RT. But this isn't 1998, and Microsoft can make a strong case in its own defense based on its own weak market share.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

No, it’s not 1998 again, although if you just awoke from a 14-year nap you might think nothing has changed.

Last week, Mozilla Corporation accused Microsoft of giving Internet Explorer an unfair advantage over competing browsers like Firefox in its upcoming release of Windows RT. That’s an eerie echo of the mid-1990s, when Netscape and Internet Explorer battled for the dominant position on the Windows desktop.

Mozilla’s Firefox is, of course, a direct descendant of Netscape, which accused Microsoft of abusing its monopoly in personal computer operating systems by bundling Internet Explorer with Windows 95. The U.S. Department of Justice won the antitrust battle against Microsoft in a case that finally ended in 2001, but Netscape never recovered and was eventually absorbed into AOL.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee plans to look at the allegations that Microsoft has engaged in anti-competitive behavior.

But anyone expecting a sequel to United States v Microsoft is in for a big disappointment.

There are multiples hurdles confronting anyone who wants to make that complaint.

First, Microsoft no longer has a monopoly in desktop computing, as it did in 1998. Back then, the Windows/Intel combo was a juggernaut and Apple was practically on life support. Today Apple is enjoying unprecedented success with its MacBooks, especially in the developed world.

And desktop computing has begun a long, slow decline. We are hardly in a post-PC world yet, but the landscape of personal computing has changed dramatically since 2001, when Microsoft was judged to have abused its Windows monopoly. The new battleground is mobile computing, and Microsoft not only enjoys no monopoly there, it is far behind Apple and Android.

Most importantly, the notion of a browser as a monolithic application seems downright quaint.

Back in the 1990s, Microsoft argued unsuccessfully that the core components of a web browser should be integrated into the operating system, in order to “preserve the integrity of the platform.” Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson didn’t buy that argument in 2001, but it makes much more sense today, especially when you look at the actions of Microsoft’s rivals.

Google (which has joined Mozilla in complaining of Microsoft’s decision) has built its full suite of apps to run exclusively in a web browser, specifically its own Chrome browser, which is at the very core of its Chrome OS.

Apple has embedded the Webkit HTML rendering engine and JavaScript interpreter directly into its iOS operating system. If you want to build a third-party browser, you basically have to create a user interface that sits atop those components. That’s what Opera has done with its Opera Mini browser:

Opera Mini always uses Opera’s advanced server compression technology to compress web content before it gets to a device. The rendering engine is on Opera’s server.

So the two players that dominate mobile computing today have essentially adopted the model Microsoft proposed in the 1990s. Microsoft will have a much easier time arguing that its market share (very low single digits in mobile computing) justifies tighter integration between browser and OS.

In the x86/x64 version of Windows 8, Mozilla and Google both have the right to develop browsers that will be on an equal footing with Internet Explorer 10. But doing so requires that users install traditional Windows apps and DLLs that work under the hood to handle HTML rendering and JavaScript interpretation.

In Windows RT, the only avenue for users to install code is via the Windows Store or Windows Update. Those tight restrictions are there for a reason: to ensure the security, reliability, and performance of ARM-based devices. That level of control is essential to battery life and preventing users from being targeted by malware, as Apple has already proven.

Both Mozilla and Google require their own HTML and JavaScript components, and their products are based on frequent updates. Neither of those conditions is possible—or desirable—on the tightly controlled Windows RT platform.

Back in the 1990s, Microsoft made the case for the level of integration between browser and OS that we see today. Ironically, it has a compelling argument that it should be allowed to do exactly that today so it can compete with a larger, more successful company.

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