In June of 2009, following the European Commission’s decision that Microsoft was abusing it’s monopoly position by bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, I wrote an article called The Microsoft Dilemma. In the article, I discussed Microsoft’s options and issues with the European Commission’s decision.
Since then, to my great chagrin, the article has been one of the most viewed on the Big Bad Blog.
Perhaps this is simply the nature of writing about technology — within a couple of years, what looked and felt like an intelligent, reasoned article leaves the author looking like a dolt.
In any case, it has caused a dilemma here at the Big Bad Blog — this out-of-date article is the introduction many people have to the blog.
How do we remedy the situation?
Our answer is to take a second look at the Commission’s decision, the aftermath, and how things look now.
The end decision
As has been well-documented, Windows 7 users in Europe have been prompted since March to choose browsers based on a list. Living in the European Economic Area (which is the remit of the European Commission) and typing this on a new machine powered by Windows 7, we expected to be able to give a bit of first-hand insight regarding the ballot.
It was not to be. Our new machine came with Internet Explorer pre-installed (just like every other machine we have ever had). While this is not a bother to us, we do wonder whether this represents Microsoft disregarding the European Commission, working around it using deals with computer sellers, or simply that the UK lies outside the remit of such decisions. Alternatively, we could have simply been speeding through setting up our new PC, without much concern for our Internet Explorer settings.
This, of course, was one of the options — we thought it the best option, although our thoughts about how Microsoft could tweak this to their advantage have run-aground against Europe’s ability to be severely bureaucratic and keep a constant eye on what appears on the so-called “browser ballots”. We were foolish to think the European Commission would want to be hands-off. The first word, after all, is “European”.
The Impact of a Ballot
One of our original concerns regarding this option was that while it would certainly dent Microsoft’s web browser domination (which was the Commission’s intent), it might not create a more competitive marketplace. Which is to say that three of the four most popular web browsers are built by Microsoft, Google and Apple. Rather than being small companies struggling to compete, these are three of the largest technology companies in the world. (The fourth maker of a popular browser, Mozilla, is an open source project and has been competitive without the Commission’s help for years.)
So it is interesting that when we look at representations of the ballot online, that these three options are always on the table:
Of course, we can see that scroll bar down at the bottom, which apparently leads to less common browsers:
Still, the big winner would appear to be Opera, which has won a place on the first page alongside the big four. Smaller browsers are buried on later pages. But what of the overall effect?
Depending on where you find your numbers, they will be slightly different, but from March to December 2010, it appears that Internet Explorer usage dropped approximately 8%, Chrome usage increased by a similar margin, with other browsers remaining constant.
While this appears to be “mission accomplished” for the European Commission at first glance, it does raise some questions.
First, why did only Chrome rise? As a relatively new, built-by-Google browser, we would expect an increase in the number of users using Chrome in any case. That they are the only browser to gain a significant share makes it difficult to claim that the ballot is working. Rather, it looks as though it is simply another heavyweight contender entering the market alongside the traditional powers (Internet Explorer and Firefox).
Second, where are the page two browsers? The two sources quoted above would put 1.1% or 0.59% of users (depending on which table you are looking at) using a browser not on that front page of the ballot. The tables do not agree on whether that means the number of users is rising or falling in comparison to pre-Windows-ballot numbers, which leads to the conclusion that there is no significant impact there.
Our conclusion, therefore, is that the ballot has been largely pointless, and has not had a significant impact on browser choice.
What we missed the first time around
Our original article expressed reservations with the European Commission’s decision. In essence, we argued that the Commission appeared to be attacking Microsoft without regard for the interests of the average European, rather than attacking Microsoft because it was in the best interest of the average European citizen.
With the advantage of hindsight, we see now that both the Commission and the Big Bad Blog were mistaken in their analysis. In particular, we missed two things.
First, we missed that the market was correcting itself. When we wrote our article in June of 2009, Google’s browser had approximately a quarter of the users it has now. There is no reason to believe that Chrome is finished gaining users. In fact, as we will see below, the trend is quite likely to intensify before Google’s market share stabilizes due to increased use of the Chrome and Android operating systems.
We can see above that Microsoft’s loss of market share has gone entirely to Google. This pattern began before the ballot was introduced, so there is no reason to suspect that the ballot is to be credited for the change in consumer behaviour. Instead, it appears that much effort has been put into trying to cause a trend that was already occurring.
Moreover, we paid so much attention to home computing that we missed the overwhelming trend of the past couple of years — the move towards mobile computing.
Smart phones are rapidly increasing their share of web traffic. With the more recent tablet explosion, the way that people are surfing the web is changing, and this new world is not dominated by Microsoft. Instead, the native browsers (which are rarely Internet Explorer) and third party apps (most often Mozilla-based) dominate the mobile-web marketplace.
With prognosticators seemingly trying to out-exaggerate each other regarding the positive future of tablet computing, it seems that the trend begun by Chrome will continue unabated as users on Android, Chrome, iOS and Blackberry powered devices become an increasingly common web presence.
In total, it seems as though the European Commission was entirely unnecessary. As in technology blogs, so in life — the decision is outdated and unnecessary before it had an opportunity to make an impact.