EU: Microsoft 'shields' IE from competition

Web too important to let one company dominate browser market, says Opera CEO

The European Union's antitrust agency on Saturday confirmed that it has charged Microsoft with breaking the law, saying that the company "shields" Internet Explorer (IE) from "head-to-head competition" by bundling its browser with Windows.

The CEO of Opera Software ASA, the Oslo-based browser maker whose December 2007 complaint sparked the EU's investigation, welcomed the move. "This is extremely important," Jon von Tetzchner said in an interview late Friday. "It's important that people have a choice of browsers. It's important that we don't have one company dominating the browser market."

In a statement issued Saturday by EU spokesman Jonathan Todd, the European Competition Commission acknowledged that it delivered a statement of objections to Microsoft last Thursday, a day before Microsoft announced that it faced new antitrust charges.

Although the EU has not released the text of those charges, it provided some clues as to their direction. "The evidence gathered during the investigation leads the commission to believe that the tying of Internet Explorer with Windows, which makes Internet Explorer available on 90% of the world's PCs, distorts competition on the merits between competing Web browsers insofar as it provides Internet Explorer with an artificial distribution advantage which other Web browsers are unable to match," the EU said.

The commission also claimed that Microsoft's practice of bundling IE, something it has done since 1995, "shields" the browser from "head-to-head competition with other browsers," adding that it believes the lack of competition was "detrimental to the pace of product innovation."

Not surprisingly, von Tetzchner agreed. "Microsoft wouldn't have the market share they have without the tying of IE with Windows," he said.

According to Net Applications Inc., a U.S. Web metrics company, IE accounted for 68.2% of the browser market in December 2008, down nearly eight percentage points for the year. However, Microsoft's browser is less popular in Europe, according to French measurement vendor Applied Technologies Internet. In November, the last month for which data was available, Applied Technologies' XiTi monitoring site pegged IE with 59.5% of the European browser market.

Firefox, developed by Mountain View, Calif.-based Mozilla Corp., is the second most popular browser in both metrics firms' rankings. By Net Applications' numbers, Firefox had a 21.3% market share in December, while XiTi's put Firefox's European share at 28% for the same month. Opera has a very small slice of the overall browser business: 0.7%, according to Net Applications, and 3.3% by XiTi's estimate.

The EU's antitrust agency cited the September 2007 ruling by the government's second-highest court as precedent. That decision rejected Microsoft's appeal of the original 2004 verdict and reaffirmed the illegality of Microsoft's practice of typing Windows Media Player to Windows.

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