Yesterday, Microsoft dropped a bomb by announcing that all versions of Windows 7 released in Europe would ship without Internet Explorer pre-installed. This was in answer to the EU antitrust investigation currently under way regarding possible illegal bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows. The first reactions to this news are coming in, with Opera and the EU both lamenting the move.
I want to focus on Opera first. Opera has always stated that the bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows is what is making it impossible for them to compete fairly on the desktop side of things. You’d think that the removal of Internet Explorer from OEM and retail versions of Windows would be welcomed with open arms by Opera – but no. As it turns out, they’re not happy at all.
Opera Chief Technology Officer Hakon Wium Lie said in an interview that this move was not was Opera was looking for. “I don’t believe this is going to restore competition in the marketplace,” he said. Instead, Opera prefers the solution where upon boot, users would be shown a dialog with a few browsers to choose from – among which Opera, of course.
I find it very difficult to take Opera seriously. Opera may claim that they are being held back by the bundling of IE, but that claim is simply not supported by the current state of the browser market. Firefox’ popularity is through the roof, with the Free/free browser from Mozilla touching the 40% market share figures in many European countries. In addition, Chrome has become quite popular in a short period of time, more popular than Opera, in fact (of course, usual warnings for statistics, etc. etc.).
What does this tell us? This tells us that Opera has simply been unable to deliver a product that people want to use, or that they’ve been unable to promote Opera in a proper way. This has nothing to do with the bundling of IE, as Firefox is showing us that if you build a better product, people will come. Bundling or no bundling.
It seems like Opera is hoping for cheap shortcut to gain more users. Firefox and Mozilla did it the hard way, by building a product people wanted, and by successfully promoting it. Opera has apparently failed to do so, and is now hoping to be included in a popup dialog, a popup dialog which in itself would be highly anti-competitive as it would favour only those browsers in the dialog already. What if someone new comes along, like Chrome and Safari for Windows recently? How would they get on the list?
That is not to say, of course, that the act of bundling in and of itself is or is not against the law – I’ll leave that to the lawyers among us. However, what I’m arguing is that the bundling proved to be no problem for Firefox, so why should it be one for Opera? The browser market is healthier than ever now, and thanks to web standards, we have to worry less and less about websites not working. This is a direct result from Firefox’ popularity, and instead of trying to get a free ride on Firefox’ success, maybe Opera should try to build and market a product people want.
The European Commission has also responded to yesterday’s news, and they’re not particularly impressed either. “As for retail sales, which amount to less than 5% of total [Windows] sales, the Commission had suggested to Microsoft that consumers be provided with a choice of web browsers,” their statement notes, “Instead Microsoft has apparently decided to supply retail consumers with a version of Windows without a web browser at all. Rather than more choice, Microsoft seems to have chosen to provide less.”
When it comes to OEM sales, the EC is more positive. OEMs will be able to freely decide which browsers to supply with their machines. “Were the Commission to conclude that Microsoft’s behaviour has been abusive, it would have to consider whether this proposal would in itself be sufficient to create genuine consumer choice on the web browser market.”
The EC argues that while the move to remove IE isn’t bad in and of itself, it may simply not be enough to undo possible damage done by the bundling, and that more actions (like a popup dialog) might be needed to restore the browser market to a healthy state.
Time will tell, but they’ll have to be quick about it. Windows 7 is about to be released to manufacturing, after which there’s really not much of a turning back.