The market share war for browsers, word processing suites, and other products wasn't much of a war when it came to Windows in the mid to late 90s. Microsoft was producing full-featured products which it increasingly tied to its own operating system. At the same time, it blocked or slowed the development of would-be competitors by withholding information on the OS.
This strategy, either brilliant or anticompetitive, depending on your viewpoint, landed Microsoft in hot water in 1999 when U.S. Federal Courts ruled that Microsoft was a monopoly which had used its powers to crush threats to the monopoly. In the decade since, Microsoft has been forced to make a number of reforms. While it has mostly avoided additional charges in the U.S., it has continued to run into trouble with the European Union, which has picked up where the U.S. left off.
The EU has already fined Microsoft over $2.4B USD for not making its interfaces open enough and refusing to comply with its rulings. As a result Microsoft has been forced to pay these massive fines and offer new services to competitors to make their products more compatible with Windows.
Now, following a fresh round of accusations which included criticism of Microsoft's bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows, the EU, according to reports, has reached a new decision which may set a new worldwide precedent.
The EU will require Microsoft to package third party browser software with Windows. Furthermore, it will require Microsoft to provide further support efforts to make third party browsers' interface with Windows components like Windows Explorer as efficient as Internet Explorer's. The ruling is set to apply to both desktop Windows OS's and to Windows Mobile for cell phones.
Jonathan Todd, spokesperson for EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes states, "If the Commission's preliminary conclusions as outlined in the recent statement of objections were confirmed, the Commission would intend to impose remedies that enabled users and manufacturers to make an unbiased choice between Internet Explorer and competing third party web browsers. (Microsoft will have to allow users) to choose which competing web browser(s) instead of, or in addition to, Internet Explorer they want to install and which one they want to have as default."
EU officials propose a ballot screen when first using the OS which will tailor it to a specific browser of the user's choice. Another possibility, it says, is for Microsoft to negotiate with its OEMs who manufacture computers or phones with Windows and have them select the third party browsing software. Among the browsers considered as candidates are Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome, and Opera.
The move comes at seemingly strange timing, when Firefox has finally established a solid foothold against Internet Explorer, which happens to be at a decade low of around 60 to 65 percent. However, the decision represents long standing complaints from an EU. It also marks a change in policy from previous rulings on Microsoft's Windows Media Player. With Windows Media Player, the EU required Microsoft offer a version of Windows without it. Of course, almost everyone picked the version with it, though. States one anonymous EU official, "That remedy was rubbish."
Microsoft has until March to draft a formal response to the EU's latest charges. A final decision from the EU is not expected until then, but there appears to be a consensus that offering competitive software appears to be the best idea. Microsoft reacted to the news with little emotion, stating, "We are committed to conducting our business in full compliance with European law. We are studying the statement of objections."
Some speculate that the EU could bring similar regulations against Apple, which practices similar bundling of its Safari browser. However, Apple computers continue to be a bit player in market share, so such a move seems unlikely, as the primary argument here is based on Microsoft's dominant OS position.