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Carl Camera

Opera's Antitrust Complaint

Earlier this week Opera Software filed an antitrust suit with the European Union against Microsoft. Opera states that Microsoft is abusing its dominant position and hindering interoperability. In the press release Opera states that it is filing the complaint "On behalf of all consumers who are tired of having a monopolist make choices for them." Opera then requests that the EU force Microsoft to

  1. Unbundle Internet Explorer from the Windows operating system
  2. Follow fundamental and open Web standards accepted by the Web-authoring communities

Opera CTO Hakon Wium Lie also posted an Open Letter to the Web Community soliciting support for the complaint, and states that Microsoft has used its "market dominating position to limit a genuine choice of browsers." This post will serve as my open response.

On Market Dominance

It is going to be difficult to prove that Microsoft's dominant market position is stifling the browser market, when Firefox has been gaining browser marketshare since its introduction and Apple's Safari browser has been gaining marketshare for the past several months. It appears that some browsers are gaining marketshare. If one considers IE6 separate from IE7, one could argue the most popular browser on the planet today is Firefox 2. How is this market dominance? Microsoft will say that it's in a heated battle to maintain marketshare, not resting on its market position.

The fact is that companies will still create websites to accommodate major browsers. Today, that means more than just IE. And there is a principle that states that since everyone is coding their sites to browsers A B and C, then I, in choosing a browser, would be wise to use one of those browsers, which then entrenches me as a website producer to code my sites to accommodate browsers A B and C even more. This phenomenon has been played out for VCR formats and keyboard layouts, and continues to play out in several technologies including, but not limited to video game consoles, computer processors, high definition DVD formats, video file formats, and audio file formats.

On Web Standards

I've not spent hours delving into this topic, but it's my general understanding that no browser fully supports every standard. How is it fair to force one non-conforming company to fully comply without forcing all companies to comply? If you're seeking a level playing field, then seek a level playing field. Even that would not level the playing field. Forcing all browsers to fully conform to W3C standards would create an artificial barrier to entry into the market.

Next, there are no binding web standards and no de jure web standards entity. To my knowledge, the W3C publishes recommendations and their specifications are merely guidelines, not law. Every browser is free to innovate to differentiate their product from the competition. AJAX grew from a non-standards-compliant browser feature found exclusively (at that time) in Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Forcing compliance might actually stifle innovation since energy would be spent implementing esoteric recommendations rather than innovating new technologies.

And let's face it, not all W3C recommendations have been good ones.

Furthermore, IE7 in fact, introduced no new proprietary features that caused any churn among its competitors. Its support for W3C standards improved considerably. Why would now be a good time to complain to the EU when the most recent history shows IE moving more toward standards adoption?

On Unbundling

Opera's complaint to the EU seeks to apply the same unbundling principles to browsers as was done for Windows Media Player. The EU forced Microsoft to create a new Windows SKU that did not contain Windows Media Player so that purchasers of the product could freely choose their audio player solution. Correct me if I have bad information here, but after Microsoft complied with this EU order, the free market for the most part ignored the Windows XP N product and freely chose the product that contained Windows Media Player. How do you expect unbundling to be any different for browsers?

My Reaction

Yes, I agree with your assertion that my job would be easier if Microsoft conformed to W3C web standard recommendations. But the legal actions taken by Opera seek to punish one company for so-called noncompliance and ignore noncompliance issues elsewhere.

So I'm sorry, I cannot lend my support to your cause. Fortunately for you, I don't live in an EU country. Your open letter, however, asked the Web Community of which I am a part.

Comments

"It is going to be difficult to prove that Microsoft's dominant market position is stifling the browser market"

Not at all. The proof is in the pudding. After more than a decade of trying to fight IE and billions of dollars spent on this, IE still has more than 80% market share worldwide.

In the EU, a mere 40% is considered a "monopoly", by the way.

"Next, there are no binding web standards and no de jure web standards entity."

That's not the point here. The point is anti-competitive practices, and that happens to be through ignoring standards that microsoft itself has put its support behind!

jobbie 16 Dec 2007

In the EU, a mere 40% is considered a "monopoly", by the way.

Interesting. It appears there is no distinction in Europe between market leader and monopoly. It seems success itself is evil to the EU. This is clear incentive for mediocrity in European products.

The point is anti-competitive practices, and that happens to be through ignoring standards that microsoft itself has put its support behind!

I think there is a culture gap that is keeping me from understanding this issue. So the problem is that Microsoft is a monopoly and stifling the browser market -- limiting user choices and causing headaches for web designers worldwide. How does standards-compliance fix this situation?

Let's suppose we could wave a magic wand and fix it today: First, Microsoft unbundles IE from Windows in its Windows XP N product, and Second, MS releases an updated version of IE that supports Acid2. Now what? Are Opera, Firefox, Safari suddenly more relevant to the marketplace? Absolutely not. This is what I don't understand. Even if Microsoft were to capitulate, the marketplace is fundamentally unchanged.

So why is Opera doing this? It won't cause any fundamental marketplace changes.

Carl 17 Dec 2007

"How does standards-compliance fix this situation?"

By not locking web sites into proprietary technologies. If all browsers were standards compliant, web developers would code according to standards rather than coding for each browser like they do today.

"Are Opera, Firefox, Safari suddenly more relevant to the marketplace?"

They would no longer be locked out from sites, because sites would be forced to code according to standards.

"Even if Microsoft were to capitulate, the marketplace fundamentally unchanged."

No, because all browsers would be able to access all of the web.

jobbie 17 Dec 2007

By not locking web sites into proprietary technologies.

I beg to differ on your statement. What proprietary technologies? Opera is complaining that IE doesn't support enough standards. I personally code to standards with Firefox as my main development browser, then test in IE and adjust my stylesheets to accommodate them. There's nothing proprietary about it -- only extra work.

They would no longer be locked out from sites

This is a decision, and an idiotic one, by some sites to restrict sites based on brower. Some sites are iPhone-only. How is this different?

No, because all browsers would be able to access all of the web.

See above. Website lockouts cannot be resolved by Microsoft. They have a fairly decent standards-compliant browser in IE7 and they're trying to wipe IE6 off the planet as fast as they can.

We can all help Web Standards by encouraging folks to move to Windows Vista.

Hello? Anyone? :-)

Carl 17 Dec 2007

"Opera is complaining that IE doesn't support enough standards."

Actually, it also implements standards wrong.

"I personally code to standards with Firefox as my main development browser, then test in IE and adjust my stylesheets to accommodate them. There's nothing proprietary about it -- only extra work."

But many still code only for IE. That you do something else isn't really relevant.

"This is a decision, and an idiotic one, by some sites to restrict sites based on brower. Some sites are iPhone-only. How is this different?"

It is different because the iPhone is not in a dominant position.

"Website lockouts cannot be resolved by Microsoft."

Yes they can, by making their browser standards compliant, so that sites code according to standards rather than specifically for IE.

jobbie 18 Dec 2007

@Jobbie: Please clarify if I misinterpreted your statements above but this is my current understanding of your position on this topic:

  • You think that forcing the browser manufacturer with the dominant market position to adhere to the current w3c spec is acceptable because -- and only because -- it is the manufacturer of the browser with the dominant market position. You believe it's okay for other browsers to be exempt from this requirement.

  • You think that a web site policy that locks out browsers including the dominant browser is acceptable, but a policy that locks out all except the dominant browser is unacceptable.

Carl 18 Dec 2007

Carl,

Excellent post!

Yours is a voice of reason on a subject that seems to galvanize the web developer community and illicit some of the most illogical arguments I've ever read.

By now, I'm sure you're aware that Microsoft's IE Team has announced that a recent IE8 build has passed the Acid2 test. This certainly looks like progress on being web standards compliant to me!

Perhaps Opera will need to modify it's antitrust complaint before the EU issues a Summary Judgment in Microsoft's favor.

Jeff Lynch

Jeff Lynch 20 Dec 2007

Thanks Jeff.

It's a highly emotional topic for some folks.

News that IE8 passes Acid2 is great, and Dean's comments toward standards are encouraging.

Carl 20 Dec 2007