Google has joined Mozilla in backing a complaint before the European Commission in which Opera Systems has accused Microsoft of using its dominant OS market position to promote Internet Explorer at the expense of rival Web browsers.
Google said Tuesday that the browser market is largely uncompetitive because Internet Explorer is directly tied to Microsoft's dominant Windows operating system, giving it an unfair advantage.
"The value of competition for users -- even in the limited form we see today -- is clear: tabbed browsing, faster downloads, private browsing features, and more," noted Google Vice President of Product Development Sundar Pichai. "Even greater competition will drive more innovation within browsers themselves -- as well as in Web design, enabling sites to load faster and offer new kinds of interactive tools and applications."
On Jan. 17, the EC sent Microsoft a statement of objections in which European antitrust authorities set forth the evidence they had gathered about Opera's complaint. The document also presented a preliminary determination that Microsoft's method of linking IE to Windows "harms competition between Web browsers, undermines product innovation, and ultimately reduces consumer choice."
Microsoft has until mid-March to formally respond to the charges, at which time it can also request a hearing. But Mozilla Chairperson Mitchell Baker said there is absolutely no doubt that the Eco's preliminary determination is correct.
Whether there is "a good remedy, and what that remedy might be" remains subject to debate, Baker said. But this does "not change the essential fact" that "Microsoft's business practices have fundamentally diminished -- in fact, came very close to eliminating -- competition, choice and innovation in how people access the Internet," she said.
Some industry observers point to the market-share gains that Mozilla's Firefox has made during the past year as evidence that competition had finally returned to the browser market. However, Baker said "a single anomaly does not indicate a healthy, competitive, or innovative system," nor is it an indication that Microsoft's activities "haven't done significant damage, or aren't still benefiting Microsoft in ways that reduce competition, choice and innovation."
The Firefox browser "is the only product so far to even dent the competitive advantage Microsoft created for itself through its tainted activities." Baker said. "I don't think there has been a single example of anyone ever regaining market share from a Microsoft monopoly until Mozilla Firefox."
The Ballot Screen
On Monday, EC spokesperson Jonathan Todd hinted at one possible method that European antitrust authorities might order to resolve the issue should the commission's preliminary objections be formally confirmed.
Microsoft could be required to install a "ballot screen" within Windows that would enable users to "choose which competing Web browser instead of -- or in addition to -- Internet Explorer they want to install, and which one they want to have as default," Todd told the EurActiv portal, an independent working instrument for the majority of NGOs, industry federations, and other institutions involved in European Union policy debates.
Still, Pichai said it isn't easy to create a remedy that helps solve one problem without creating other unintended consequences, which is why he thinks that the more voices there are in the conversation, the greater the chances of success.
"We learned a lot from launching our own Google Chrome browser last year and are hoping that Google's perspective will be useful as the European Commission evaluates remedies to improve the user experience and offer consumers real choices," Pichai said.