Opera CEO von Tetzchner: Microsoft's IE8 'turn-off' is not enough

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Over the weekend, Microsoft revealed that in its latest private beta build of Windows 7, it will allow users to uninstall the Internet Explorer 8 Web browser front end -- a choice it has never offered to consumers since version 3.0. The fact that since 1996, the presence of IE in Windows was elevated to such an extent that users could not completely uninstall it, nor could they ever entirely avoid it, has been credited by many as the real reason for Microsoft being perceived as having won the browser war against Netscape.

While Microsoft credits "user feedback" as having driven the need for this feature -- or actually, something like this feature but maybe more up-front -- the truth is, users have been supplying that feedback now for more than a decade. Most likely, it was the European Commission's latest objection which finally drove Microsoft to institute what some are seeing as the first crack in the dam. But is it enough to let any light break through for the other browser manufacturers desperate to gain more than a toehold on the Windows desktop?

The man just released from his contract as the EC's monitoring trustee, Prof. Neil Barrett, gave positive remarks to BBC News this morning: "Microsoft did this off their own bat. From their perspective, making the operating system modular is a good thing. For competitors, this will allow them to compete on all fronts."

But are Prof. Barrett's sentiments shared by those who would be doing the competing? Oslo, Norway-based Opera Software's stance against Microsoft on the topic of Web browser competition is very well known, especially after having filed an antitrust complaint against it in December 2007. Microsoft's latest move could give Opera a bit of a break. But as Opera CEO Jon S. von Tetzchner told Betanews this evening from overseas, he sees this move as a positive signal, but not anywhere close to a reparation for the years of damage he believes Internet Explorer has caused to the browser market, as well as to the Web as a whole.

Scott Fulton, Betanews: About Microsoft's move over the weekend...Is this, in your mind, the breakthrough that Opera needs to be able to crack the global and US markets?

Jon S. von Tetzchner, CEO, Opera Software: I don't really see this as that. I mean, it is a good move; in a way, I think it's natural that end users should have a choice in browsers. We don't see whether Microsoft makes it possible to remove IE visually, because that's what they're really doing, changes that fact in any particular way.

I guess you're thinking about the European Commission case with regards to this. I see what Microsoft is doing as positive, but it's not restoring consumer choice in any shape or form.

Betanews: Is that because it really hasn't taken that extra step of saying, not only, "Here's a way to take off Internet Explorer 8," but, "Here's some alternatives that you may want to check out?"

Von Tetzchner: Is there that much of a difference? If you think about it, okay, you still need to go and download a browser, right?

Betanews: Um-hmm, and you need a browser to do that with.

Von Tetzchner: In any case, you need some kind of way to select browsers, to download browsers. That can be done in multiple ways, but that's another story.

Betanews: So you think it would be more convenient if the user had in his setup alternative browsers that he could choose at that time, rather than have to take a separate download step?

Von Tetzchner: Clearly, yes.

Betanews: If Microsoft were to relent all the way, or if it found itself having to do so by virtue of the outcome of this latest European Commission affair, then who decides how that alternative is presented to the user? Do we leave it to Microsoft, or do we appoint some independent person to say, "Okay, we need to make space for Firefox and Safari...and oh yes, Opera?"

Von Tetzchner: I don't think Microsoft will do that without being requested to do so. I don't think that's very likely. So any kind of solution then has to come out of the European Commission case, which is ongoing. I think clearly, it is a question of giving users choice, and how you list that -- it should be as transparent and easy as possible for the end users to have a choice, so that different browsers have equal visibility.

Betanews: Is there any opportunity here, assuming that this state of affairs is carried forth into the final Windows 7, for Opera to be able to do some education of the general public, to say, "Okay, folks, you now see that it's possible for you to take that step back. Now let's give you a bit of hand-holding, and we'll show you how you can take a step forward?"

Von Tetzchner: I think in a way, the real question is, is it okay that Microsoft includes the browser with [the operating system]? We have some laws when it comes to antitrust, and the question is, do you like antitrust laws [and regulation]?...A lot of people may like or dislike, when they're watching a game of football, the referees; but I don't think anyone would like to get rid of the referees in any kind of game. It's to ensure that games are being played fairly. The same applies here with regards to competition law. I think, in a way, when it comes down to it, this is about making sure that consumers continue to have a choice.

The fact that Microsoft has managed to get the position they have in the browser market, I don't think anyone would argue that they would have gotten there without tying the browser to the operating system. Otherwise, I guess it would be no issue for them to actually just take the browser out.

So I think the important thing here is, it's a good thing for consumers. Consumers will have choice in browsers, and hopefully the result of this will be that consumers will be given an equal choice of browsers, starting with the operating system. Having Microsoft install and be able to remove the icon -- which is, basically, what this is about in a more formalized matter -- is good, but it's not the solution.

Next: Who gets to play referee for browser fairness?

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