Opera CTO: Here's how to level the browser playing field

I had a chance to ask Opera Chief Technology Officer Hakon Wium Lie a few questions (via e-mail) about the European Commission's preliminary findings around Opera's 2007 antitrust complaint against Microsoft for its browser-related business practices. Here is our exchange.

On January 15, the European Commission (EC) issued its "statement of objections" -- basically, its prelinimary findings regarding a 2007 antitrust complaint levied by Opera Software against Microsoft  and its browser-related business practices.

Many industry observers (including yours truly) have considered Opera's and the EC's actions too be too late and misguided. That said, Opera wanted a chance to provide an update on its side of the story.

I had a chance to ask Opera Chief Technology Officer Hakon Wium Lie a few questions (via e-mail). Here is our exchange:

MJF: What has happened with the standards piece of Opera's December 2007 complaint (your decision to go after Microsoft for not complying with ACID and other Web standards)? Is this still going forward as an antitrust complaint? Where is it at in the EC process, at this point?

Lie: In our communication with the Commission, we have stressed both the tying issue and the standards issue, and we believe the Commssion has a good understanding of both. We have not seen the Statement of Objections that was sent to Microsoft, so we do not know which issues the Commision seeks to address.

Also, the two are intertwined. Due to tying with Windows, Microsoft's Internet Explorer has become the ubiquitous browser on the Web. How many people would use IE if you had to manually download and install it? However, since it's ubiquitous, web authors are forced to code for IE rather than standards. As a result, the web is stuck in the IE-land with little chance of escaping. Few pages dare take advantage of all the standards-based features that the other browsers offer. Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) is one example of a specification that is widely support, except in IE.

MJF: A number of "industry observers" are saying that Opera is doing Google's bidding with its browser complaint and that it's actually Google who is pushing the EC to go after Microsoft in this matter. They point out that Opera board member Bill Raduchel and Google CEO Eric Schmidt used to work together at Sun and have a lot of mutual anti-Microsoft feelings/goals. Is Opera working with and/or on behalf of Google in this antitrust matter?

Lie: Opera is working on behalf of our own company, and for the Web. We are not working on behalf of other companies. It is crucial for the Web that no single vendor dominates -- competition must be preserved both for browsers and search engines. We also collaborate with other companies, especially the members of ECIS.

(MJF note: ECIS is the European Committee for Interoperable Systems. Members include: Adobe, Corel, IBM, Nokia, Opera, Oracle, RealNetworks, Red Hat and Sun Microsystems.)

MJF: What is the remedy that Opera is seeing in the IE-Windows bundling arena? Are you encouraging the EC to force Microsoft to release a version of Windows without IE bundled? (And if so, how would you propose users who want Opera get it with no browser initially installed?) Or are you in favor of the court forcing Microsoft to ship as part of future versions of Windows a number of different browsers from which users can choose to install one or more?

Lie: There are many options. Like you suggest, it would be easy to add browsers to the Windows distribution and let the user make the choice. It should also be possible to configure Windows Update so that subscribers are asked which browser they prefer to install -- IE8, Opera, or Firefox, perhaps? It would be handy for the user to know the size of the download, and the number of reboots necessary. Compliance with web standards could be a requirement for getting onto that list.

In any case, users should never be without a browser. The web is too important to be stuck without a browser anywhere, anytime. Opera is is working hard to make sure there's a browser for every device.

I have mixed feelings about Opera's ideas for providing users with browser options. I am all for choice and glad I have a choice of search providers. But requiring Microsoft to use Windows Update to deliver other browsers seems onerous. Providing three or four browsers on a DVD seems antiquated. And the whole "must comply with Web standards" thing makes me uneasy, as Web standards are constantly in flux. Should my choice of which browser I use really be curtailed by a test as to whether or not it complies with ACID? I hope it never is....

What do you think of Lie's suggestions?