It's only been a few days since Microsoft's rollout of the browser choice screen for European Internet Explorer users. But already, the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS, not to be confused with the European Commission, a legislative body), which is credited with pressing the EC forward on the browser bundling issue, is claiming victory not just with regard to exposing users to the choice they have, but with helping to advance the developmental progress of the Web.
Now, ECIS legal counsel Thomas Vinje is calling upon other trade regulatory and legislative bodies worldwide to follow Europe's example, arguing in a statement yesterday (PDF available here) that everyone should be entitled to the same ballot.
"The ability of...applications to run quickly and with improved features depends upon progress in Web browsers. As we know from experience, that is driven by competition that offers rewards to companies that build the quickest, most versatile browsers," Vinje stated. "The European initiative will help spur competition, but leaves most of the world's computers with operating systems that are tied to Internet Explorer. We call on competition authorities around the world to look closely at what has happened in Europe, and to act on behalf of their consumers. Only then will we get a fully competitive market that will drive intense competition to build better browsers."
Vinje's statement comes as global analytics firm StatCounter released one of the stranger statistics to emerge from this whole affair. Although it's way too early to call this a verified trend, StatCounter statistics show usage share of Internet Explorer 6 among European users spiked sharply higher, by better than three points, just since the official rollout date of the browser choice screen March 1. Amazingly, Internet Explorer 8 usage share spiked down to pre-February lows, while the uptick in Mozilla Firefox 3.6 adoption tapered off as well.
Assuming for the moment that this isn't a trend, what other regulatory agencies would be interested in compelling Microsoft to impose a choice screen in their regions, or in imposing restrictions forcing it to do so?
In much of the rest of the world, the heat of antitrust scrutiny against Microsoft has actually cooled, even below the typical "low boil" point. Although the new antitrust chief at the US Justice Dept., Christine Varney, was an outspoken critic of Microsoft's abuse of Netscape during her time as a corporate attorney, she has essentially sided with the 2008 viewpoint expressed by DOJ that Microsoft has turned a corner and is cooperating. Last December's Joint Status Report indicated that DOJ was happy with how Microsoft addressed the issue of giving Vista and XP users upgrading to IE8 the option of testing the browser before making it the default, or not making it the default at all.
The Status Report went on to dismiss many of the usual complaints against the company with the following language: "Since the prior full Status Report, filed on April 16, 2009, fifteen third-party complaints have been received by the United States. All of these complaints were non-substantive and did not raise any issues regarding Microsoft's compliance with, or the United States' enforcement of, the Final Judgment."
Last June, a district court in Seoul, South Korea, did find Microsoft guilty of charges dating back to 2001, brought forth by that country's Fair Trade Commission, that the company abused its market dominance by bundling Windows Media Player with Windows. But in an extremely unusual twist, the Seoul court overturned the lower court's 2005 judgment in favor of the original plaintiffs, two third-party producers of media players, stating in so doing that the bad fortune those companies encountered was not on account of Media Player. It chose to fine Microsoft instead, probably as a way of putting the whole matter of bundling behind it.
In September 2009, Russia's Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) dropped its antitrust investigation of Microsoft, which centered around charges that by discontinuing sales of Windows XP, it forced Russian consumers to purchase Vista. The statement FAS issued at the time said it found no evidence that Microsoft violated any laws.
With antitrust action in Japan cooling way below "simmer" and closer to "off," attention could turn to China, where the Maxthon browser is based. Maxthon has historically borrowed IE's browsing engine, but adopted the open source WebKit engine as an alternative with Version 3 last September. But last August, in an interview for China Times, Maxthon CEO Jeff Chen pointed to what he perceived as IE's already declining usage share in China, as an indication that the existing conditions there may already be making the browser market fairer.
"In China, the competition is more confined comparatively. We hope that browser developers in China can give user experience and technology improvements the highest priority, collaboratively advance relevant technologies, and facilitate Web site standardization," Chen told the reporter. "These will be instrumental to unifying the Internet industry in China with the rest of the world. The market share of IE is dropping rapidly in China. At this rate, a full-scale browser war could soon break out in China. We hope that developers would compete constructively and improve together for the benefit of users."
So while ECIS may be looking for an avenue for spreading the news, the demand for its product in foreign markets may actually have subsided.