Microsoft Settles Its European Browser Antitrust Case

You may have seen news that the antitrust case against Microsoft regarding its internet browser has been dropped by the European Union. The EU decided to end the suit because Microsoft agreed to give its Windows users more browser options. In reading the details here, I don't see how it does all that much harm to Microsoft, but the concessions will allow the firm to avoid further fines. I've always found the browser antitrust battle a bit unusual.

Here's with some explanation:

The EU said this morning that it is dropping antitrust charges against Microsoft after the software giant agreed to give Windows OS users a choice of up to 12 other Web browsers, including Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple's Safari and Opera.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Microsoft will need to implement a ballot screen that lets users in Europe replace Internet Explorer with another browser, starting March 2010. The deal also means computer manufacturers will now be able to ship PCs in Europe that do not come pre-installed with IE.

Of course, the reality is that every computer user already has a choice whether or not to use Internet Explorer. Some people just aren't savvy enough to figure out that they can download a new browser for free and set it as their default. Others simply don't care what browser they use. But now, Microsoft will have an update that automatically offers users the opportunity to install a new browser, making the task a little easier. I doubt all that many users will bother utilizing this feature, however -- most that care about their browser choice would have already went ahead and installed another without such an offer.

More important is the pre-installation aspect. I almost can't imagine getting a Windows-based PC without IE installed. And it seems like kind of an odd notion. I'm not sure why having IE preinstalled with Windows is any different from having Microsoft's "Solitaire" preinstalled. But for whatever reason, other solitaire software creators aren't complaining about that.

I've never viewed Microsoft's bundling of IE as being an anticompetitive behavior, mostly because I think a software company should be able to put whatever it wants in its software package -- especially for free when users can still utilize other software. Microsoft wasn't forcing anyone to use IE; it just preinstalled the program and made it the default browser.

What's always struck me as strange about the browser wars is that browsers are free. No browser costs anyone money anyway, so other than the fact that it takes a little time to install a new one, no computer user is ultimately much worse-off by having one version preinstalled over another. But here's what the EU says:

European Union Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes in a statement said millions of European consumers will benefit from this decision by gaining "free browser choice", and that it will also spur browser makers "to innovate and offer people better browsers in the future".

And that makes no sense to me. Browser choice was already free. I don't see how innovation is encouraged more now either, unless computer companies start paying software firms to preinstall their browsers instead of IE. But then, well, browsers choice would no longer be free! At any rate, I'm sure Microsoft is relieved to have this pesky antitrust case behind it, even if it had to make a few concessions to get there.