Opera tells EU that Microsoft's IE hurts the Web

'Microsoft has harmed Web standards,' charges Norwegian browser maker

Norwegian browser maker Opera Software ASA took a page from an American playbook yesterday as it complained to European Union antitrust regulators that Microsoft Corp. stifles competition.

In a complaint, Opera claimed Microsoft continues to abuse its dominant position on the desktop by tying its Internet Explorer (IE) browser to Windows, and hinders interoperability by not following accepted Web standards. It asked the EU's Competition Commission to force Microsoft into separating IE from Windows, and to demand that IE support several standards.

In a statement, the commission said Opera should "obligate Microsoft to unbundle Internet Explorer from Windows and/or carry alternative browsers preinstalled on the desktop.

"Second, it asks the European Commission to require Microsoft to follow fundamental and open Web standards accepted by the Web-authoring communities," Opera said. "Microsoft's unilateral control over standards in some markets creates a de facto standard that is more costly to support, harder to maintain and technologically inferior, and that can even expose users to security risks."

Several U.S. states argued along similar lines back in October when they asked that judicial oversight of Microsoft's behavior be extended until 2012. Then, six states -- California, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota and Massachusetts -- as well as the District of Columbia told U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly that Microsoft's dominance meant it could use IE to stop or hinder Web-based threats to Windows. According to the latest figures, IE owned just over 77% of the global browser market in November.

"Many of the 'new' or 'emerging' technologies cited by Microsoft's experts [as competitors] are dependent on a 'standards-based' browser to access computing functionality delivered by servers. For the vast majority of PCs, that browser is IE," the California-led group of states said in October. "The threat that these technologies pose to Microsoft's Windows monopoly through their ability to erode the applications barrier to entry depends, in large part, on Microsoft's willingness to maintain IE as a standards-compliant browser and to continue supporting cross-platform implementations."

Opera didn't use that specific argument in its complaint, but it hinted that IE's lack of support for Web standards jeopardized its own browser. "Instead of innovating, Microsoft has locked consumers to its own browser," the company said in its statement.

Opera's chief technology officer, Hakon Wium Lie, however, was more specific in an open letter he posted to his blog Thursday. "We believe that Microsoft has harmed Web standards by refusing to support them," Lie said. "Microsoft often participates in creating Web standards, promoting them and even promising to implement them. Despite their talent, however, they refuse to support Web standards correctly. For example, Internet Explorer is the only modern Web browser that does not support Acid2. Because Internet Explorer doesn't implement open and fully developed Web standards, the work is hard and frustrating. Web designers are forced to spend time working around IE bugs rather than doing what inspires them."

He then called on Microsoft to shape up. "We seek no money from Microsoft. We would rather see Microsoft put their considerable talent and resources to work for the Web community."

Not surprisingly, the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), a Brussels-based opponent to Microsoft that counts Opera as a member, echoed that line of reasoning. "Microsoft either fails to implement industry-standard accepted open practices or implements them in a manner that is not faithful to the standard by adding undisclosed proprietary extensions," ECIS' Thomas Vinje, the group's legal counsel, charged in a separate statement.

Web developers have been making the same case individually. In reaction to posts placed on the official IE blog, developers have blasted Microsoft for not properly supporting standards in the current IE 7, and not spelling out what standards will be supported in the upcoming IE 8.

The EU's Competition Commission confirmed the Opera complaint and said it would consider it. "We are going to study this complaint carefully," said Jonathan Todd, the commission's spokesman. "In particular in light of the case law established by the Court of First Instance in its ruling of the 17th of September of this year." In September, the Court of First Instance, the EU's second-highest court, ruled against Microsoft's appeal of a landmark 2004 antitrust ruling; within a month, Microsoft caved on all counts, saying it would not appeal further and would slash licensing prices for Windows protocols.

Microsoft reacted to the move from Opera by noting that users are free to install any browser, though it only touched on the standards part of Opera's complaint. "Computer users have complete freedom of choice to use and set as default any browser they wish, including Opera, and PC manufacturers can also preinstall any browser as the default on any Windows machine they sell," said Microsoft spokesman Jack Evans in an e-mail today. "Internet Explorer has been an integral part of the Windows operating system for over a decade and supports a wide range of web standards.

"We will, of course, cooperate with any inquiries into these issues," Evans added.

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