Earth to Europe: You won. Microsoft complied. Live with it.
A note of full disclosure first, to quell any dispute over which "side" I'm on: I've been a Windows user for 20 years. And today -- but perhaps not tomorrow -- my Web browser is Mozilla Firefox. Do I like Firefox? On days when it doesn't crash, yes. The moment someone else makes a more suitable Web browser than Firefox for my extremely heavy duty purposes, I will switch. I test the competition almost every day now, so I literally do mean the moment that happens.
The tying of Internet Explorer with Windows was a scheme by Microsoft to eliminate Netscape's market presence -- a devious, immoral, illegal, and effective scheme. Today, Netscape is nothing more than a flavor of an AOL Web portal page, a skin. No more damage can be done there. Does any technical reason remain for a Web browser to continue to be tied to, or bundled with, an operating system?
No. A Web browser is an Internet utility, a class of program, an application. Microsoft's 1990s arguments that the Web browser and the OS must use the same rendering engine, have been irrevocably debunked -- what's more, the evolution of both categories of software have rendered the arguments moot anyway. Should Microsoft be allowed to continue to make a Web browser? Yes. Should Microsoft be responsible for restoring balance and equity to a market that it nearly destroyed?
That is the principal question raised by the European Commission's January Statement of Objections. Phrased another way: Does Microsoft owe restitution to the Web browser industry for having leveraged its dominant market power in Windows in a massive land-grab for four-fifths of the browser market?
Microsoft's response to that question yesterday was that the true answer lies with the European Commission itself, the legislative body responsible for the latest Statement of Objections. Suppose the answer to that question is yes, and that Microsoft should begin by severing the ties between IE and Windows, as it now plans to do in Europe. It should therefore follow that Microsoft cannot and should not unilaterally decide what steps to take next.
So why is it that the European Commission, in its initial response to Microsoft's compliance with its wishes this morning, raised the ominous specter of whether this is the first step in some new and evil scheme to manage the market? Translated into a language presumably created in a European country, the EC's implication boils down to this: By no longer making the choice on behalf of consumers, Microsoft leaves them with no choice to make.
Or, as the EC put it in its native language: "The development of new online services makes Web browsers an increasingly important tool for businesses and consumers, and a lack of real consumer choice on this market would undermine innovation."
Of all the arguments ever made against Microsoft's conduct, either real or historical or presumptive or speculative, this one is by far the most bizarre. It speaks of a political entity so desperate for a nebulous, scheming nemesis on foreign shores that it will attribute an evil motive to anything that nemesis does, including making amends.
While it's obviously not Microsoft's preference, its attorney said yesterday it's open to the prospect of offering European consumers what's being called a "ballot screen," letting consumers choose, during installation or activation, which Web browsers they prefer. The obvious problem that could, and probably will, ensue is that reasonable, sensible people with no knowledge of Web browsers will not be able to make a choice, at least not that moment. Furthermore, if Microsoft lists IE first, will that imply Microsoft prefers IE? If it gives users a list in alphabetical order (and do not for a moment think Google didn't think of this), would Chrome fall first, ahead of Firefox, IE, Opera, and Safari?
What other market in the world are consumers ever guaranteed of entering with full knowledge of the choices available to them? I purchased a dishwasher last year, and I was amazed at the research I had to perform to make a clear choice. There was no wizard panel to help me, no single Web page breaking down all my options, no cut-and-dried menu. And no politician on my behalf ever sent a statement of objections to General Electric for having manufactured the old, sorry, rust bucket of a pre-installed dishwasher I was forced to purchase at the time I bought my house -- for obstructing consumer choice.
So I have this to say to the European lawmakers:
It appears now that consumers will have to become educated and make an informed decision about their Web browsers. Perhaps I'm speaking a foreign tongue, but isn't that what you said you wanted? Wasn't your original argument that Microsoft was precluding an informed decision on the part of the consumer?
Read the bulletin again from Redmond: You won. It's done. And yes, the ball is in your court now, and the next move is yours. Sure, Microsoft's play looks a lot like the last time you got your wish, with the Media Player-free Windows XP N that -- surprise, surprise -- nobody wanted. You're telling me you didn't see this coming? How does the old saying go, "Fool me twice..." translated into your language?
Is your argument now that the market must decide, and now you've decided to adopt an American-style approach to this matter? The thing about the market approach is that it's designed to be regulated by markets, not by governments. Governments are established to protect human rights and to uphold citizens' interests, but qualitative judgments about who deserves to be using what product, are for markets to decide. If you don't want the responsibility for deciding how the Web should work, then stop declaring Internet access a fundamental human right. Speech, liberty, and equality are worth dying for. Opera (the browser) isn't.
Now that it appears the individual truly will have a choice (at least in Europe), what is it that you're afraid of? Are you concerned that individuals may make the wrong choice? And what might that be?
The time for a grand, sweeping gesture on the part of any government to save a great idea and a good institution, was 1996 when Netscape was having its lifeblood squeezed out of it by a malicious competitor with market power. That train left the station a long time ago, and any real restitution -- any responsibility for restoring the Web from what it is today, to what it might have been had Netscape been permitted to exist -- should fall to those who failed to act when it was truly time to act.