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Microsoft Finally Plays Tough With the EU

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For years I’ve suggested that Microsoft should slap European trustbusters aside the head by pulling Windows out of their market. Microsoft’s plan to pull Internet Explorer 8 from Windows 7 on the Continent is nearly as good.

It’s a brilliant solution to a troubling problem. The European Competition Commission is nearly ready to officially rule that Microsoft’s bundling Internet Explorer with Windows is an anticompetitive act. The European Commission is currently entertaining remedies, which are rumored to include a proposal that would present Windows users with a choice of browsers to set as default during installation.

EC regulators can whine and complain about how oh-so terrible is IE, but that contention ignores that:

  • Many businesses depend on Internet Explorer
  • Real browser battle is becoming mobile, where neither Windows nor IE is dominant
  • Desktop browser competition is fiercer than ever (Firefox usage surpasses IE in some places)

Lots of European businesses, consumers and developers will be sorry to lose IE from Windows. Some will feel slighted, like they’re been treated second rate compared to people in every other region in the world. Surely there will be backlash—some pointed at Microsoft for making the decision, but perhaps more to European regulators for creating the situation. Of course, Microsoft critics and competitors will publicly rejoice. Be careful what you ask for, I say.

Generally, early blogs and news stories make the move out to be a Microsoft concession. That’s absolutely not the case. Microsoft is making a bold move here, essentially slapping European commissioners across the face. Microsoft has drawn a line in the sand and dared the European Commission to step over it. The IE8 pulling tactic is sheer brilliance and testosterone charged. Microsoft just told the EU to frak off.

The question: How bold is Microsoft really being? It’s one thing to hide access to Internet Explorer or to use Windows 7’s facility for pseudo-removal. For Microsoft’s decision to have meaning, there should be no vestiges of IE left in Windows. If that latter scenario turns out to be true, removing IE isn’t so far removed from not shipping Windows at all. Many applications, including those from Microsoft, depend on the browsing engine being present. If it’s not there, what good is Windows?

16 Comments

  1. Completely agreed. And the fact that Opera has now making statements that “it doesn’t solve the problem” is an indication that now they’ve got no case against Microsoft & there is a huge possibility that Opera will be held accountable for Microsoft’s move possibily creating a bad perception of Opera in the minds of some end users, ‘coz the talk is going to be something like this … Opera kept crying, UE kept harassing, Microsoft pulled it off. Result, no browser for us.

  2. This move has the potential to *double* Opera’s market share, all the way from insignificant up to trivial.

    You can see that Microsoft has been working on this capability for a long time. XP and earlier versions of Windows relied on IE for integral functions, including help and Windows Update. Even in Vista both of those are standalone programs and you essentially never need to run IE.

    Joe, maybe you can ask them: how hard would it be to remove IE from Vista too?

    This is a great solution for MS. How important is IE to them anyway? It’s free! A Europe full of Windows users running Firefox is a Europe full of Windows users.

  3. billybob says on June 11, 2009

    What would they gain from slapping the EC across the face? They are using Ireland to avoid paying massive amounts of US tax. If they upset the Europeans then the only place left to run is Australia.

    The EC has way more clout than you think and Microsoft is not in any position to claim they have a solution. The EC will tell them what the solution is and how much fine they will pay.

    If this is a childish attack on the EU then I think most businesses here will think twice before relying on Microsoft software for their next upgrade.

  4. I think Microsoft has potential to “win” this by doing some marketing about it when Windows 7 comes out. Imagine a commercial that points out the hassle consumers will have to go through to get a browser, and that Europe doesn’t get a browser. Then if Microsoft really wanted, they could blame Opera, since I don’t see the Firefox, Chrome, or Safari teams whining, and saying that this doesn’t fix the problem. In fact, if they do, I’m going to be pissed. The right move is to commend Microsoft, and take this opportunity to ramp up marketshare to consumers who just want to use any browser they get their hands on first, rather then risking Opera getting preferential treatment as a European company.

  5. whatever says on June 11, 2009

    Could you be more specific as to what Microsoft is actually doing?

    Are they removing the IE code from the install and installation media?
    Will Windows 7’s default install options simply have IE unticked?
    Will IE be a download-only option or will IE not run at all on the EU version?

    I think the EU will be very happy either way. I mean let’s get real people – the only segment that will be impacted is the home user and for them it’s just another reason to look surprised, wave their fist in the air, curse Microsoft and get on with it. For business users it’s business as usual rolling out Windows xp.

    Final point about you Americans – you really really can’t see the world outside your own borders can you? Microsoft depends on the Europeans using Windows, just as it depends on the Chinese, the Americans and the software pirates using Windows.

    If you suddenly loose the ability to expect – nay demand! – the other end to have the exact same software as you do the whole Microsoft value proposition gets tipped on it’s head. Standards compliance would suddenly be a meaningful metric in software evaluation. Software evaluation as a whole might actually happen, rather than cowering behind a “nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft” sign. In short the world as we know it would end and chaos would reign supreme.

  6. smist08 says on June 11, 2009

    A lot of desktop applications display web content (even if from the harddrive) using the IE ActiveX control. I wonder if this will still work? If not it will break most Windows desktop applications. IE the browser is really just a container to hold this control, if they just remove the IE exe, then they’ve just removed the com container that allows IE to run standalone. Otherwise they haven’t really affected Windows.

  7. NickH says on June 12, 2009

    I think the move is clever, simply becuase it unbundled IE. The reality is, no EU customer is going to struggle to get a browser installed.

    For a start, most consumers get their PCs from an OEM, and these guys are just going to put a browser on – maybe even more than one. It might not be IE, but the choice is no longer Microsofts, so they are out of the firing line.

    For Windows bought at retail, Microsoft will ship a big stack of DVD with IE on, which the store clerk will hand to you for free.This disc is going to have all sorts of other stuff on it (all the Live client sofftware for a start). As this is NOT bundled, Microsoft dont have to care about antitrust issues, and they can do what they want. Its feasible this might even drive up usages of some of this stuff.

    I think, ironically, Opera is the big loser here. They dont have the means to flood retails with free CDs, and they dont have the means to pay OEMs to pre-installl it either. My guess is that Google will happily pay a couple of cents per PC to get Chrome re-installed.

    I doubt Microsoft has avoided a significant fine. This case looks at the bundling situation over many years, and the EC will surely punish for that aspect, with a fine. If they demand an corrective action remains to be seen – I could imagine that they might be telliing the top tier OEMs that they need to ship, or offer a choice at time of purchase, of zero, or two or more browsers, but not one.

  8. NickH says on June 12, 2009

    Hmm, it seems the EU is not exactly impressed with Microsoft’s action: http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=MEMO/09/272&format=HTML&aged=0&language=EN&guiLanguage=en

    Reading this, its pretty clear that the EC will demand a ballot screen in Windows. (It could not come any closer to saying that without actually saying it).

    It seems that the EC is wanting to reguate the OS/Browser market to ensure that there is a healthy diversity of standards compliant browsers. Actually, I support this in principal – after all we regulate mobile phone services to ensure there is choice and innovation.

    What I cant agree with is that they are doing this under the guise of anti-trust actions against Microsoft. They issued in January a Statement of Objections that found Microsoft had illegally bundled IE. No that Microsoft has unbundled it, they say “Rather than more choice, Microsoft seems to have chosen to provide less.”

    The key point here is its not Microsoft’s job to provide choice. Microsoft, as a monopoly, is only obligated to not restrict choice. By removing IE, they force users to choose a browser, so its hard to see how this is restricting choice.

    I’m proud to be European, and I’ve generally supported previous EU competition actions, but they really do seem to have lost the plot on this one.

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