An expensive (lack of) choice…

This week Microsoft have been fined 561m Euro by the competition commission at the EU for failing to promote web browsers from other companies (such as Mozilla’s Firefox) to their users, thereby helping to ensure that their own Internet Explorer remains the most used browser.

Deal with Europe’s Competition Commission:

You might read this and think “Well that’s odd, surely a company can’t be forced to advertise it’s competitors can it?”. Well on the one hand it does seem odd, but delve a little deeper and you can start to understand why it was necessary. In 2009 Microsoft had made an agreement with Europe’s Competition Commission that they would offer a choice of browsers on their computers in order to reduce their disproportionate share of the market. So for users of Windows 7, a screen popped up pointing out that other browsers could be used and directed users to websites where they could download the alternative browsers. This screen then disappeared in operating systems purchased or updated after February 2011. Microsoft have said that they did not mean to remove the screen, but that it was a coding error, but what this “error” meant in practice was that as Microsoft has a whopping 95% of the share of the OS market in Europe, and as the majority of people just use whatever browser comes installed on their computer, Internet Explorer continued its to dominate the browser market (in January 2013 IE had 55% of the worldwide market share) – and what happens when one very large company has a monopoly? Innovation slows down and smaller competitors are forced out of business.

Locked in to Internet Explorer?

So, in the period covered by the fine, many users have been effectively “locked in” to using Internet Explorer (IE). One of the biggest problems here is that users of Windows XP can’t get any versions of IE later than IE8 which was released in March 2009. This means that many new developments in the world of the web (such as the rather wonderful D3 charting tools) are not accessible to many people using Windows XP. So, because of this web designers must continually check that what they are doing is usable by IE8, meaning that new ideas driven by new technologies are slow to be adopted or must be designed with “fall-back” options. This makes building websites more complicated and therefore also more expensive for everyone.

The Reality:

In reality the fine is considerably less than Microsoft could have been charged for breaking the rules, but is hopefully enough to send messages to other large companies who don’t follow agreements drawn up with the competition commission, thus helping to drive faster development in the future. Quite why Microsoft can’t release newer versions of IE for XP is a different story…