Browser wars—still going strong?

Thee European Commission has, again, issued a Statement of Objections (SO) against Microsoft finding that

The evidence gathered during the investigation leads the Commission to believe that the tying of Internet Explorer with Windows, which makes Internet Explorer available on 90% of the world's PCs, distorts competition on the merits between competing web browsers insofar as it provides Internet Explorer with an artificial distribution advantage which other web browsers are unable to match.

This time the occasion is a complaint by Norwegian browser-maker Opera from 2007 with regard to bundling of Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) to the Windows operating system as well as

hindering interoperability by not following accepted Web standards.
Some, such as CNET's piece called the Commissions action “yesterday’s issue", referring to the fact that the browser wars have been going on for a while. Nothing could be further from the truth. More likely, this is tomorrow's issue. Leaving aside the bundling issue, and instead focusing on the standards issue and the importance of web browsers as such, the outcome of the current browser wars will do much to determine the future of the Internet. It clearly raises the question about how we as users and consumers will be able to access the web to search information, purchase goods or interact with other people. Other media, such as the International Herald Tribune's piece and the Financial Times' piece, were more balanced. However, none of these articles go to the crux of the browser matter: standards compliance.

Browsers are strategically important pieces of technology, which can be used by companies such as Google, Microsoft and Opera to foster the use of their own Internet services and applications. There is, of course, nothing wrong with launching products. To consumers, governments, SMEs and industry overall, however, it is crucial that browsers are not allowed to become purely vendor specific growth engines. Instead, they should ideally enable innovation for the entire ecosystem. There are many reasons why.

Firstly, standards compliant browsers are important to the Internet itself. Browsers are the most important piece of software for navigating the Internet. The Web 2.0 trend means consumers want to be actively making choices with regards to design, display, behavior, and content. One browser, however standards compliant, does not allow enough flexibility—and constrains choice.

Secondly, web browsers are themselves increasingly bundled applications. Web browsers are not just interfaces but increasingly contain applications such as news, chat, email, and search filtering or display options. If standards compliant browsers—in plural—are allowed to blossom, we can avoid that vendor-specific platforms govern Internet content. Some pundits see web browsers as candidates to become actual operating systems. The Economist (see article), for instance, makes the case that Google's Chrome browser was created to accelerate web computing.

Thirdly, vigilance on browsers is timely. The technological and social changes outlined above mean that the situation is radically different from the original browser wars between Microsoft Explorer and Netscape. In December 2008, Internet Explorer had 68 percent market share compared with Firefox's 21 percent and Safari's 8 percent, leaving Chrome, Opera and all the others sharing the remaining 3, according to NetApplications (see their report). Other figures, such as the ones used by the EU, quote even higher market share for the incumbent. We are also in the midst of a third browser war, that between mobile browsers. If the Commission can set the rules for the second browser war, it will also secure a standards compliant pressure on the mobile browser war (which might be the next Internet frontier).

Finally, more efficient, open, standards compliant browsers will enhance the Internet and speed up the move towards a web centric computing platform (sometimes called with the fancy new term cloud computing), as opposed to one centered on the PC and its operating system. Browsers are important. Still.

Comments:

I think more and more people will continue to switch to firefox. It's a much better browser then internet explorer.

Posted by Brian on January 27, 2009 at 08:25 AM GMT #

Hi Trond,
"Some, such as CNET's piece called the Commissions action “yesterday’s issue", referring to the fact that the browser wars have been going on for a while. Nothing could be further from the truth. More likely, this is tomorrow's issue."
I understand Opera's party line to depict it as the fight for the future of the web. Probably this is an aspect which seems attractive to us because we don't want to deal with “yesterday’s issues" but the future. However, you can as well describe it as a rematch. To get things right that went wrong. Let us follow the C|Net line and think about it in terms of a rematch. Does that term make sense to you?. If the browser as you suggest is the fundament of the cloud services space it also affects the future. Today is the future. Rematch means failure of competition enforcement in the past is corrected. Raison d'etat. An IAM article put the event in the Obama perspective, Ronald A Cass:
"Second, in just a few days a new American President will be sworn in and a new Administration will take office. It seems quite strange to welcome a new administration by filing a complaint against a major American company, especially a complaint that duplicates one already litigated and resolved in the U.S. And the U.S. case was settled on terms that apply to Microsoft world-wide."
We know that competition policy does not follow foreign policy agendas, and Cass's views are plain silly but it seems the international competition enforcement scene is confident to restore its powers and go after a company that launched frontal assaults against the institutions and their policies. Litmus test: If it is really a yesterday's issue compliance should be painless. If it hurts then it is no yesterday's issue. My Chancellor, Angela Merkelhad a fascinating contribution in Davos on economic policy. The current economic crisis is a great opportunity to mainstream ordoliberal views. Policies that see the role of the government in fierce competition enforcement, not state aid for industry players and "competitiveness". Order instead of candy. Hayek decribes competition as a "method for the discoveries of matters which would be unknown without its existance or at least without permission to be used". It hints at the innovation potential loss due to gated plattforms and explains why suboptimal competition enforcement is so dangerous for the future of the web plattform.

Posted by Rebentisch on January 30, 2009 at 03:03 PM GMT #

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About

Trond Undheim, Ph.D, Director of Standards Strategy and Policy at the Oracle Corporation, speaker, entrepreneur, blogger, and author, is one of the world’s leading experts on technology and society. LinkedIn profile

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