The European Commission has granted Microsoft's request for an extension to the software giant's deadline for responding to allegations that it misused its market-dominating position to stifle competition for Web browsers.
On Jan. 17, the EC sent Microsoft a statement of objections that presented the evidence behind the preliminary determination by European antitrust authorities that the software giant's method of linking Internet Explorer to Windows "harms competition between Web browsers, undermines product innovation, and ultimately reduces consumer choice."
Initially, Microsoft had until March 17 to formally respond to the charges. But with Wednesday's extension, Microsoft will have until April 21 to formulate a response.
In the Windows 7 release candidate, Microsoft added a control panel called Windows Features. "If a feature is deselected, it is not available for use," said Microsoft's Windows 7 engineering team last week. "This means the files -- binaries and data -- are not loaded by the operating system (for security-conscious customers) and not available to users on the computer."
The inclusion of IE8 on this list is hardly surprising. In January, Microsoft notified the Securities and Exchange Commission that the software giant was facing the prospect of "a significant fine based on sales of Windows operating systems in the European Union." Microsoft is certainly looking for a way to avoid a repeat of the $1.4 billion fine it paid the EU last June.
Still, the latest Windows 7 changes fall well short of the "ballot screen" approach that EC spokesperson Jonathan Todd described last month, which would enable new PC buyers in Europe to replace Internet Explorer with a competing Web browser, or use both Internet Explorer and a rival browser. On Tuesday, Todd suggested Microsoft may be considering this remedy.
"Microsoft has not told us anything so far," Todd told the EurActiv portal, which serves as an independent working instrument for the majority of NGOs, industry federations, and other institutions involved in defining EU policies. "If they think it is relevant, they will presumably include the measure in their response to our statement of objections."
Slipping Market Share
This week Google, which offers the rival Chrome Web browser, weighed in on the issue. "The Internet was founded on choice and openness, and this requires a level playing field with multiple options for accessing it," Google said Wednesday. "From the moment a computer is turned on, people should be able to access a range of browsers easily and quickly."
Even if Microsoft satisfies the EC on the browser front, it's difficult to see how it can halt IE's recent slide in popularity. According to Net Applications, IE's share of the browser market in the past four weeks has fallen to 67.44 percent -- down more than 5.2 percentage points from its 2008 average. By contrast, the market share held by Firefox has risen by 3.75 percentage points to 21.77 percent so far this year.
Late last year, Net Applications speculated that IE's losses in November and December might be attributable to atypical holiday Web-surfing patterns. The firm reasoned that Firefox and Safari typically enjoy relatively high residential usage, whereas IE use is strong among businesses, which were closed for the holidays. However, the latest data clearly shows that IE's slide wasn't an anomaly.