The Microsoft Dilemma dilemma

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In any case, it has caused a dilemma here at the Big Bad Blog — this out-of-date article is the introduction many people have to the blog.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.

Mobile Computing

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.

The morning coffee and the world’s strongest vagina

This morning’s breaking(!) news is that Google is creating their own Operating System. This is incredible news. For all that the European Commission has tried to nail Microsoft to the wall over Internet Explorer, the real monopoly is — and always has been — Windows. The only options available to users have been Windows, Mac OS (Apples only) or Linux (frightens away non-technical people).

By providing an alternative that (presumably) needs no more technical knowledge than Windows or Macs, but runs on PCs, Google may be introducing competition to the world of Operating Systems.


Meet the world’s strongest vagina. Here at the Big Bad Blog, we were previously unaware that they had a vagina weightlifting world record. We are happy that there are still things that take us by surprise, and wonder if there are vagina weightlifting competitions.

Gabe (who is a complete stranger to the Big Bad Blog) has a blog of his own: He is blogging the details of his very strange eviction. It features very strange episodes and landlord/tenant confrontations, and is recommended reading.

The Microsoft Dilemma

Update – January 2011: This article continues to attract viewers eighteen months after being written. As such, we have written a follow-up/update on Microsoft, Internet Explorer and the European Commission.

You buy a new computer, bring it home, and turn it on. It — like most computers — comes equipped with the latest Microsoft Operating System. What is the first thing you do?

For many people, the answer would be go online. Perhaps it is because you are addicted to this Internet thing. Perhaps you want to download another browser, such as Firefox, Opera or Chrome. Perhaps you want to download some other program for your computer. But you have just encountered a problem.
Why? Because you are in Europe, and Microsoft no longer bundles Internet Explorer with Windows. This leaves quite a dilemma for Microsoft.

On one hand, most (if not all) computer users use their computers to access the Internet. For many, it is the primary or secondary use of their computer. Microsoft has a free product that allows this, but the European Commission has ruled that bundling them together is an anti-trust violation. Hence, no more bundling.

On the other hand, a new computer (or a computer with a recently upgraded OS) can be considered to be largely useless if it does not allow one to browse the Internet. How can a Microsoft OS not be considered to be an inferior product if it does not even allow this basic functionality?

The BBC article has the following sub-headline: European buyers of Windows 7 will have to download and install a web browser for themselves.

My question is: how? That might be simple with Internet Explorer pre-installed. You simply run it. Perhaps it even goes directly to a Bing search for Web Browser the first time it’s opened, with a pop-up message explaining that they should choose another browser if they do not want to use Internet Explorer. Of course, they cannot do this without risking another billion-dollar fine. So what options do they have?

Microsoft’s Options
The answer is that Microsoft has very few options that do not raise serious concerns — all of them are flawed.

Option 1: Make downloading Internet Explorer easy.
Microsoft could give access to a “Microsoft Store” through the Operating System, which would allow people to download Internet Explorer, buy Microsoft Office, and so on. In this way, they would not have bundled Internet Explorer with the Operating System, but will make it easy on the user to get it.

However, it is hard to see this as any less of an abuse of power than bundling was. The issue with bundling was that by having IE pre-installed as the default browser, it meant that passive users (the majority) would never even consider their options. There is no reason to, as they are already online, unless the browser gives them a negative experience.

This is simply a continuation of Internet Explorer as the default browser — the change is immaterial in this sense.

Option 2: No Internet
A second option would be to simply have computers with Windows 7 not come Internet-ready, and require users to take action in order to get the Internet set-up on their computers.

This must be a tempting option for Microsoft — they could say to European customers “this is what you asked for — have fun!” Customers who were unprepared would need to order a CD to install a browser, and are more likely to call Microsoft than Google, Apple or Mozilla — if Mozilla even has a CD order line. They would comply with the ruling this way, while showing the European Commission to be incredibly short-sighted.

Of course, this also takes everything out on their customers. At a time when Microsoft is battling with Apple, Google, and the open source movement, they can hardly afford to make their customers suffer in this way. It would doubtlessly cut into their market share in every market that they are in. As such, it is not a real option.

Option 3: Give the user options
Another option would be to give the user options to download a number of browsers when setting up the computer initially. They could, for example, provide links to download Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari, Opera and others. This would satisfy both the anti-trust concerns and the no-Internet concerns.

However, how is this list decided?

They could only include the “top browsers” on the market, but this would stifle the market further, ensuring that you need to be an Apple or Google to enter the browser market. If users do not currently explore their browser options because of the Internet Explorer pre-installation, how likely are they to make a change after they have actually made a choice. It essentially requires potential competitors to have market share before they can enter the market, and is even less competitive than before.

They could only include non-competitive options. Why give Google a leg up by including Chrome? Why not give Apple a little kick for those “I’m an PC” ads, and not include Safari? Why include Firefox, your biggest competitor? By promoting a revolving door of non-competitive browsers, Microsoft could give other options while closing the door to their biggest competitors. Not a bad idea, but hardly in the spirit of the ruling.

Alternatively, they could allow any browser to apply to be on the list. But what standards need to be set, in this case? Surely Microsoft needs to ensure that the available browsers are free of malware and provide a reasonable amount of security. But who sets these standards? Who judges the quality of the browsers? If it’s Microsoft, they get to peek into the code of every competitor and set the industry standards. Surely that is more damaging to a free market than having Internet Explorer bundled.

Microsoft’s Solution
Microsoft’s solution is to push Internet Explorer on computer makers and sellers. Your new computers will continue to come with Internet Explorer pre-installed as a result. For people upgrading, Microsoft has promised to make IE easy to download and install. In essence, they are using Option 1.

The European Commission is already expressing their concerns that this will not alter that Microsoft is abusing their market position to push Internet Explorer on consumers. But Microsoft does not have any good options, in truth. They can either give their customers a means of getting online, or leave them in the cold. The latter option is not a real option for a business.

Were I making the decision for Microsoft, I would opt for Option 3, and create standards for other browsers to be included in the list of available options. It would mean that the company would have to include Firefox as an option to new users, but it would effectively sink much of the competition who would not want to share their secrets, and place Microsoft as the standard-setter for web security. While Microsoft certainly does not need any more market dominance, it could twist the European Commission’s decision into greater control of the market.

What’s wrong with the European Commission?
One has to wonder what the European Commission expects Microsoft to do. They have expressly said that they do not expect Microsoft to ship Operating Systems that will not allow consumers to access the Internet, but they also do not want them to be shipped with Microsoft’s browser.

But these are Microsoft’s two options. They cannot simply include any and all options, and they should not (and doubtlessly do not want to) only include their main competitors, blocking new competition from the market.

In working life, there are often people and organisations that enjoy finding problems but not solutions. They erect barriers, find excuses and reasons why something cannot be done or is less than ideal. It strikes me that the European Commission is such an organisation in this instance.

One presumes that the The European Commission are — or ought to be — acting to protect European consumers. Microsoft’s browser-bundling makes it difficult to compete against them in the browser market, giving the end user fewer choices. This presents difficulty to smaller businesses in the browser market, and fewer innovative, quality products for computer users.

No arguments there.

However, is fining Microsoft repeatedly until they stop bundling their browser a logical solution? Without another means for Microsoft Windows users to initially access the Internet, the answer is no. If the consumer is really who the European Commission is trying to protect, they should be choosing the lesser of two evils. While attacking Microsoft at everybody else’s expense might sound like fun — who really likes Microsoft? — it should not be the driving concern of the European Commission in these matters.

What about Apple?
Furthermore, why has Apple not been fined in a similar manner?

Apple bundles their products — computers, iPhones and iPods — with the Safari web browser, in much the same way that Microsoft bundles Internet Explorer with Windows. Furthermore, their iPhones require that users tie themselves to a particular mobile phone service provider, and only provide one source for iPhone programs (the Apple App Store).

Surely if Microsoft is fined 900 million Euros for bundling a browser with an Operating System, the same should happen to Apple? Should everybody not be playing by the same rules? If such bundling is illegal, it should simply be illegal — no different rules for different people or companies.

A vendetta?
Overall, the European Commission seems to be gunning for Microsoft. It’s the only thing that makes sense.

The antitrust rulings against Microsoft damage consumers rather than helping them, and Microsoft’s competitors who engage in similar practices are not subject to the same penalties.

The European Commission should examine their decisions in light of providing a level playing field for all companies, big and small, and protecting the best interests for European citizens who use their products. In this instance, they have failed on both counts. The rules that apply to Microsoft must apply to everybody, and the decisions made do not serve the customer’s best interests.

Microsoft has a huge market share, which they abuse at times. This needs to be addressed — but in a fair way that protects European citizens, and not as part of an at-any-cost vendetta by the European Commission.