Opera vs Microsoft | December 18, 2007

As you’re all probably aware, Opera founder Hakon Lie recently filed a complaint against Microsoft with the European commission. The first part of the complaint seems fairly reasonable, at least from a certain perspective. Hakon complains that Microsoft are using their desktop monopoly to force Internet Explorer on users, to the detriment of other browser vendors. You could argue that other desktop vendors like Apple use similar techniques, and you’d be right. However the issue has less to do with software bundling and more to do with the market effect.

Say there was a level playing field with Apple, Microsoft and Linux all having equal market share. If They each bundled their own browsers into the OS, no one company would dominate. So success in the browser market would be a result of normal market forces such as quality, price, marketing budget etc. However with a 90% market share, Microsoft are effectively a monopoly. If they bundle a new application or technology into their OS, they can dominate the competition and own the market with very little effort on their part.

A lot of people would argue that Microsoft has worked hard to gain market dominance, so why shouldn’t they exploit the fact? After all, if Apple were in the same position, wouldn’t they do the same? Well the answer is obviously yes, but that’s not quite the point. This isn’t a Microsoft vs Apple debate, it’s about preventing any company using its size to drown out the competition. Without viable competition, we all end up worse off.

This has in fact already happened in the video player market. By bundling Windows Media Player with their OS and discouraging computer vendors from installing other players, Microsoft were able to build up a dominant position very quickly. Why bother providing content in Quiktime or RealPlayer format when you know that 90% of visitors will have Windows Media Player installed. Thankfully YouTube and Flash has managed to put a stop to that debate and re-introduced some much needed competition.

Interestingly this is exactly how the European Commission viewed the situation, and ruled that copies of Windows sold in Europe should come without Window Media Player Installed. Annoying for Microsoft, but potentially good for competition.

The complaint from Opera seems in part a result of this case. However you do have to wonder why they—or anybody else for that matter—didn’t try this avenue years ago. Back in 2000 Microsoft used it’s monopoly to win the browser wars and pown the market. It’s these monopolistic practices that left web development and the advancement of web standards in the doldrums for so long. With no credible competition Microsoft didn’t need to advance it’s browser technology and left us poor web developers pulling our hair out.

Like many monopolies, Microsoft spent the next few years acting like an absentee landlord and failed to see the groundswell of opinion turn against them–either that or they just didn’t care. Along came Firefox, and while it didn’t quite topple the Internet Explorer crown, it introduced credible competition back into the marketplace. This forced Microsoft to start paying attention to it’s Browser again and resulted in IE7.

Had Opera done this 5 years ago, I think the majority of developers would have been behind them. However Microsoft are now back in the game and things appear to be moving forward, at least on the browser front. Instead of being the champion of progress, this move runs the risk of looking like a marketing ploy or a cynical manoeuvre to claw back some market share.

Despite the possible business motives behind this move, I do think it’s worth exploring some more. If Microsoft were no longer able to bundle Internet Explorer into Windows, what would happen? Well first off, computer manufacturers would be free to install whatever browsers they wanted on the machines they produced. We’d probably see Firefox take an upwards turn, and possibly Opera and Safari as well. Hopefully company IT departments would probably follow suite. Assuming Microsoft wanted to protect it’s market share, they would be forced to pick up the pace of innovation and create a browser that people actually wanted to download, rather than one that was there by default. This would help stimulate competition and we’d all benefit. Unless of course Microsoft decided that the future of the Internet was outside the browser and use it’s dominance elsewhere.

The main thing that irritates me about the Opera complaint is the fact they they bought web standards into the mix. I think standards are important, but I believe they should be voluntary and not enforceable by law. By conflating the two issues, I feel Opera has significantly weakened their argument. The cynical side of me wonders if this was purely a marketing ploy to get the anti Microsoft standardistas on their side. If it is, I fear the ploy may have backfired.

Alternatively it could just be the result of frustrations within the CSSWG. There have always been accusations of stalling techniques being used by companies to prevent disadvantageous features being included in the spec. So maybe this is just a last ditch attempt to force Microsoft to adopt some unpopular features like font embedding. Either way, I do share some peoples concerns about how this will affect the working relationship within the CSSWG. I realise that companies bring about spurious legal claims as a matter of course these days, but this one somehow feels a little closer to home than normal.

That being said, I don’t think the complaint by Opera and the obvious failings of the CSSWG have much in common, so I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

Posted at December 18, 2007 6:09 PM


Ben said on December 18, 2007 6:55 PM

I too was intrigued when I saw this the other day (can’t remember where). It does seem like a valid argument…but judging on the glacial pace of development at Microsoft, they won’t have a fully standards-compliant anytime soon. The few hints that have been dropped at the IE blog seem to indicate that their won’t be much improvement on the standards front. Only time will tell.

Blair Millen said on December 18, 2007 7:29 PM

With the way Internet Explorer 7 currently renders pages (i.e. not too bad compared to other popular browsers) I’ve got this notion in my head that most web developers probably don’t mind that Microsoft have a monopoly on the browser market; it means that when we test web pages we can focus on getting it right for a large percentage of the potential viewing public, i.e. IE6 + IE7.

If it was down to computer manufacturers to install any browser software they saw fit, who knows things might turn out? We could see an increase in Firefox, as you say, but equally so, we may see an influx of minor browsers that are actually worse than IE7.

At the moment I’m content with dealing with the problems IE6 + IE7 throw at me… the thought of having another half-a-dozen browsers to have to test my sites against doesn’t appeal at all.

pauldwaite said on December 18, 2007 9:41 PM

you do have to wonder why they—or anybody else for that matter—didn’t try this avenue years ago.

I think Netscape tried it in 2002 .

If Microsoft were no longer able to bundle Internet Explorer into Windows, what would happen?

I suspect not much. If manufacturers can choose which browser to bundle, I suspect most will choose Internet Explorer, so that people don’t ring them up asking where the blue internet button is.

it’s Browser again

“its browser again?, I think.

r said on December 18, 2007 9:43 PM

So does Google need to start putting up links to Yahoo’s properties on their homepage? The argument that because Microsoft has a monopoly because they bundle IE with Windows is a thin one - you debunked your own very point about Microsoft Media Player by pointing out Flash has dominated the web.

If Microsoft actively prevented browsers from working correctly in Windows, that’d be one issue. But the bundling? That’s a stretch.

All we’d gain from the government forcing MS to bundle is a mess of legislative oversight … just to give Firefox a few percentage point in the market?

Jeff Croft said on December 18, 2007 11:30 PM

The main thing that irritates me about the Opera complaint is the fact they they bought web standards into the mix. I think standards are important, but I believe they should be voluntary and not enforceable by law. By conflating the two issues, I feel Opera has significantly weakened their argument.

Very well-said. That sums up my feelings on their filing precisely (although I didn’t realize it until I read your take).

Great post.

Dustin Diaz said on December 19, 2007 12:10 AM

This all seems to be like a very weird mess. First, it would be stupid not to bundle IE with Windows. It’s MS’s OS, they should bundle what they want with it.

The fact that we’ve re-entered these “browser wars” makes me feel like I’m in an industry full of nerdy kids who want more attention in the world. Kind of like grown up “cops and robbers.”

Sure there are things that need to be fixed with each and every browser, but suing will not solve anything.

Andrew said on December 19, 2007 7:45 AM

I seem to have a different view from most commentators on this. The prevailing opinion seems to be that the standards angle was wrong but the monopoly angle was right.

My take is that while it is possible to look at IE as a separate application, you shouldn’t.

What IE provides is out of the box web access, which everyone expects, that is consistent for all new purchasers. It is an essential part of Windows, not from a software perspective, from a user perspective.

So what has unbundling done for media player? Why would anyone buy an operating system that can’t play CDs? They wouldn’t. The only people that would are those that know enough to just go and download what they want anyway, so what is the point?

You mention that unbundling IE would mean manufacturers could install what they wanted. That is the last thing anyone should want. You will end up with much worse: A branded version of any of the browsers with extra bloat such as non-removable links to the manufacturers home page, or worse, Opera!!

I honestly believe that the bulk of users just want to turn it on and go. They don’t need loads of plugins or toolbars, they don’t need skins, they don’t need sidebars, they just need something that works and that they are used to, and IE provides all that.

Who is Opera really doing a favour for by trying to get in the way of that?

Samuel Ryan said on December 19, 2007 10:39 AM

To be honest, despite IE’s natural monopoly, it’s continually losing ground. Amongst designers, developers, and techies, it’s used very little (outside of testing). FF is really gaining ground (with the help of Google) and with Mac’s increasing market share, Safari is moving up as well.

For once (although others have claimed this before), I can honestly see IE losing most of its share within the next 5 years.

Carl Camera said on December 19, 2007 2:34 PM

I am in complete agreement with just about everything you said and it saddens me that this whole ordeal could be politically motivated by a W3C committee.

These comments were originally in a personal email, but Andy encouraged me to share them publicly, even though my opinions tend to favor Microsoft and that’s not so popular with the Standards crowd. :-)

Andy, one point were I would disagree with your post is your assertion that if four browsers were all installed on all Windows computers, that somehow IT departments would start adopting browsers other than IE. I strongly disagree. IT shops lean heavily toward single-source vendor situations, especially when multiple technologies are involved.

Imagine this large IT department setup: SQL Server DB, Visual Studio development environment, Windows Vista on desktops, Windows Server 2008 for web servers … and … Opera browser? Firefox? Safari? Not for the foreseeable future.

This example IT department — one that resembles tens of thousands of shops around the world — is already submitting problem tickets to Microsoft and talking to MS sales reps. No IS Vice-President in his or her right mind would stand up and say “Gee, Let’s use Firefox and if it breaks our site, we can rest assured that the General No-Name Open Source Community of Developers will fix it for us right away.” No, the VP of Information Systems instead says this to the CEO: “We’re going with Microsoft end-to-end where we can escalate fixes to one vendor and get someone on the phone to help us 24/7.”

Sadly, no level playing field exists for browsers, nor can one be made artificially at this time. MS, by virtue of marketing end-to-end technologies will always have an advantage over any single-product company.

Chris Mills said on December 19, 2007 7:22 PM

We’ll have some more FAQs up soon to answer quite a lot of the points I keep hearing over and over again on blogs, but I thought I’d again address some of the points I see here:

The main thing that irritates me about the Opera complaint is the fact they they bought web standards into the mix. I think standards are important, but I believe they should be voluntary and not enforceable by law. By conflating the two issues, I feel Opera has significantly weakened their argument.

I find this point really strange - we certainly are not saying that we think developers should follow standards by law, or that browser vendors should write standards compliant web sites by law. But they should make their browsers able to handle the same standards-compliant code as other browsers can, so developers have the choice to follow standards if they can.

And of course, this isn’t just about standards support in IE, this is also about stalling standards such as ECMAScript 4 and at the same time promoting proprietary standards such as Silverlight. I’m sure you’ll agree that proprietary technologies are not the right way to go.

For want of a better analogy, how would you feel if the highways agency made all the roads corrugated, and then released it’s own special cars that people had to buy to be able to drive on the roads? Ok, not a great analogy, but I hope you get what I’m pointing towards.

Sure there are things that need to be fixed with each and every browser, but suing will not solve anything.

How many times must we say this? WE ARE NOT SUING ;-) It is a complaint to the European Commission, asking them to investigate Microsoft.

Rob said on December 20, 2007 4:58 AM

Yes, Chris. I made the same error and said suing” in some threads I started. I’m surprised, too, how many people get this wrong even after I repeatedly tried to say what you are. Including analogies such as the “highway”.

Were you reading my posts?

Chris Mills said on December 20, 2007 7:53 AM

Rob - I’m certainly not conciously copying you ;-)

What threads have you been involved with? (feel free to mail me at cmills [at] opera [dot] com)

Rob said on December 20, 2007 3:50 PM

I forgot my smiley face :)
just kidding.

bob said on December 20, 2007 11:26 PM

To posters musing that web developers are probably happy that they only have to target IE6 and IE7 to reach the majority of the market: it reminds me of the old saying that, for all their faults, the Germans at least made the trains run on time.

Many of us are in fact highly displease at the shoddy and capriciously inconsistent quality of the IE series of browsers, including IE7, the tallest midget in the family.

Rob said on December 21, 2007 3:32 AM

A question. Is Microsoft guaranteeing IE8 will pass Acid2 when the RELEASE version comes out?

Joni Mueller said on December 23, 2007 4:04 AM

I can think of no better browser to work with than Opera. When my pages are coded properly and validate, they render exactly as they should in Opera. That cannot be said for Firefox and it most certainly cannot be said for IE in any of its iterations. And this has been ongoing. I’m tired of being IE’s codebitch if you will. Enough already. And yeah, it’s a shame that Opera has just now decided to throw rocks at the goliath, Microsnot. Sure, IE7 has made strides in compliance, just recently. Opera has been standards compliant all along. The sad fact is that no one (besides web developers and nerds) much cares about whether their browsers are standards-compliant; they just want to browse the internet. And until that changes, the status quo won’t.

Axel Berger said on December 25, 2007 12:59 AM

I agree with those here who said that bundling extra options, while in fact having the disadvantages stated, is a good thing per se. But contrary to, say, Media Player you can neither decide not to install IE nor can you deinstall it, which is a bad thing.

But the important point is the other one. As a customer I buy many standardized items, nuts, bolts, bearings (yes, you rumbled me, I am a mechanical engineer) CDs, sized paper, etc.etc. and I’m used to being able to demand that they do indeed conform to the standard. Why I’m expected to accept any less in the software world is quite beyond me. Indeed if all browser vendors sat down together and agreed to stop guessing with broken pages and instead just put out an “I can’t display this junk”, this would be a very good thing all round.


Chris Hunt said on December 27, 2007 12:06 AM

How exactly is internet access supposed to work in the brave new world that Opera is seeking to foist upon us?

If my PC doesn’t come with a browser pre-installed, how do I get online to download the one of my choice?

If the PC-maker has the choice of what to install, why on earth would they choose to install Windoze without IE, even if given the chance to do so? It’s not as though it would be any cheaper - or is Opera’s idea of a “level playing field” one in which they can give their browser away for free but MS has to charge?

Isofarro said on December 31, 2007 8:07 AM

Chris Hunt has an excellent point.

Delegating the decision of what browser to install from Microsoft to the OEM vendor isn’t practically going to change anything.

The Media Player debacle shows the weakness of this approach - Microsoft really nailed their point by producing a Windows Media Player free version of Windows, priced exactly the same as the other version of Windows.

Who in their right mind would pay the same money for a non Windows Media Player version? How did Europeans benefit from this?

Good write-up Andy.

anderswc said on January 9, 2008 2:30 AM

The question I have to ask is what would happen if Microsoft didn’t bundle IE with its OS?

While I thoroughly dislike IE for all it’s quirks and standards issues, if it isn’t on a new computer I purchase, I would have a hard time finding a new browser.

I also hold the opinion that using a law to force Microsoft NOT to bundle IE with its OS is foolish and even controlling. The government should busy its self with enforcing the law, not making sure that a commercial company doesn’t have too large a market share over other open source projects.

ليبيا said on April 12, 2008 5:24 PM

Were you reading my posts?