Microsoft has long offered one -- and only one -- browser with its market-leading Windows operating system -- Internet Explorer. That inside connection helped it gain over 80 percent of the market at one time, though its lead has now slipped to just below 60 percent of the total browser marketshare. Now, thanks to a 2007 complaint from third-party browser maker Opera and a subsequent investigation by the European Commission (the branch of the European Union that handles business law), that artificial advantage may finally be at an end.
The European Union ruled it was anticompetitive for Microsoft to release Windows 7 without rival browsers to Internet Explorer, which came installed by default. Initially Microsoft opted to release Windows 7 in the EU without IE 8. However, it now has come around and has made a proposal along the lines of what Opera had originally suggested -- a browser balloting scheme.
DailyTech spoke with Opera's Chief Technical Officer Håkon Wium Lie, the man who first proposed the CSS web standard and a pivotal figure at the browser company, about the development. Mr. Lie expressed happiness that his company's browser might finally get a chance to come directly to users with Windows. He states, "This is good news, we think, that Microsoft put this proposal forward. This will give users access to more browsers. It's good news for users. It's good news for browser makers. And it's good news for web standards."
According to Mr. Lie the currently proposal from Microsoft is to present users a ballot screen during Windows 7 installation. Any browser maker with over 0.5 percent Windows browsing marketshare would be eligible to be on the screen, with a maximum of 10 allowed options. This would mean that Opera, Mozilla's Firefox, Google's Chrome, and Apple's Safari would likely be the browsers presented.
Currently Microsoft is proposing that the user choice of a third party browser triggers an automatic download via a link to the company's site, requiring the Windows 7 user to be internet-connected. Opera is a bit concerned about this, but thinks it's better than the former lack of competition. Opera would prefer a "carry" option, with a copy of each third party's browser prepackaged with Windows Mr. Lie states, "A link could work (but) the benefit of the carry (approach) is that you don't need a fast active internet connection."
While the freedom of choice may place a dent in Microsoft's desktop dominance, one sector that it can expect to stay strong is in corporate deployments. One advantage Internet Explorer does have is strong availability of central management tools which save money and time for IT deployments. Inertia is also on its side; most businesses already have IE deployed as their PC browser of choice. On the topic of the business market Mr. Lie concedes, "It's been very hard to break into that market. It's hard for Microsoft itself to break into that market. You have many businesses still using Internet Explorer 6 or 7."
Mr. Lie believes that mobile and console markets are one of the most promising areas, though, for third party vendors like Opera. Opera's Mini and Mobile browsers are very popular on the mobile market at its browsers are also featured on the bestselling Nintendo Wii. Mr. Lie says that the mobile industry is among the "more receptive" markets to free browser competition.
The Microsoft proposal is still in the formative stages and may see changes. The EU and Microsoft must agree to the exact balloting scheme, but at this point both parties have agreed in principal to make a balloting screen happen. This decision to give third parties a chance is good news for Microsoft, users, and the free market says Mr. Lie. He surmises, "We'll see stronger competition and stronger support of standards from this."