Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The EU and the browser wars

From The Register, 19 Feb 2010:
Microsoft has unveiled its EU-mandated Web browser choice screen, and will start rolling it out next week.
The screen looks like this:

I'm no fan of Microsoft, mostly because I don't think their products are very good. Almost all of the desktops at my work run Linux, and almost all of the laptops are MacBook Pros. Like most of my colleagues, I've been using Firefox since the pre-1.0 days, and encouraging friends and family to do the same. We use lots of open source software, and contribute code back to the community.

But while many open source zealots will be celebrating this latest EU victory over Micro$oft, I'm staggered by the futility and the immorality of the imposition.

Windows users who care about web browsers are already using alternatives to Internet Explorer. Those who don't will be frustrated by this additional complexity — they want the internet to Just Work.

The EU ruling will do nothing to promote browser choice on Macs, iPhones, and iPads, where Safari is the default.

The upcoming range of netbooks running Google's Chrome OS won't even allow the use of alternative browsers.

But on the Windows desktop, Microsoft is being forced to advertise for its competitors — a victim of its own success.

How much taxpayers' money has been spent pursuing this vendetta? How many lawyers and lobbyists have been enriched by it?

One of my first posts on this blog was a review of a 1969 article by Karl Hess. He had this to say about monopolies:
To suppose that anyone needs government protection from the creation of monopolies is to accept two suppositions: that monopoly is the natural direction of unregulated enterprise, and that technology is static. Neither, of course, is true. The great concentrations of economic power, which are called monopolies today, did not grow despite government's antimonopolistic zeal. They grew, largely, because of government policies, such as those making it more profitable for small businesses to sell out to big companies rather than fight the tax code alone.
Despite the advantages that large companies enjoy in a corporate landscape laden with byzantine regulations, the story of the 21st century browser wars has beautifully illustrated Hess's point.

Without any help from the EU, Microsoft's share of the browser market fell from 96% to 63%. By building a superior product, promoted by word-of-mouth, Firefox accumulated a market share of 24%. It is a perfect example of how monopolies can be overcome without state intervention.

If the EU really wants healthy competition in the software market, it will leave it alone, resisting calls for US-style software patents.


  1. Writing a little over a year ago, Ryan Paul at Ars Technica expressed similar views:

    "To the observant tech enthusiast, all signs seem to indicate that Microsoft's monopoly is on its way out. The Redmond giant is in no danger of annihilation, but it's definitely not positioned to dictate terms to the rest of the industry anymore.
    The popularization of the open source development model arguably emerged as a response to Microsoft's monopoly. Developers had to find innovative ways to compete with an entrenched product. If the government had intervened in the software industry at an early stage and those conditions hadn't existed, the browser market could arguably be a lot less rich and competitive than it is today. If Internet Explorer had never gained the dominant marketshare to necessitate a change in the status quo, the only browser choices we would have today might be between an ad-encumbered Opera and a proprietary Netscape."


  2. And as the BBC has noted

    "It was the minnow operator, Opera, that brought the latest complaint about browsers in 2007"


    It's a classic case of special interests lobbying for government favours.