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 [web archive] 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
- Unbundle Internet Explorer from the Windows operating system
- 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 [web archive] 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 (FONT element in W3C HTML 3.2 Specification).
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?
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?
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.
"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!