The European Commission has fined Microsoft €561 million ($732 million) for failing to provide a browser “choice screen” to users of its Windows operating system, as mandated by a 2009 settlement agreement. The screen would display competing Web browsers, such as Mozilla’s Firefox and Google Chrome, and allow consumers to install and use them instead of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which is bundled with Windows. Microsoft and the European Commission agreed that the screen wasn’t displayed to some 15 million Windows users between May 2011 and July 2012 due to a “software error,” which Microsoft claims went unnoticed for more than a year.
While Microsoft could appeal the fine, $732 million is chump change for a company with a $234 billion market cap. The software giant formerly known as the Beast of Redmond is more likely to focus on its main rival, Google, than continue fighting with European regulators.
It’s weird, though. The European Commission seems to be living in the past, hounding companies that promote their own Web browsers on desktop machines while ignoring mobile. As mobile operating systems begin to meet or exceed sales of desktop PCs, perhaps the commission will start to look at handheld devices. And when it comes to mobile operating systems, no one is more closed than another computing behemoth: Apple.
You see, Apple is the most egregious offender when it comes to handicapping competitive operating systems. It ships its Web browser, Safari, with every iOS device sold, and doesn’t allow end users to choose a different default browser. Every link they tap opens in Safari, whether they’ve got other browsers installed or not.
And the European Commission thinks that Microsoft not displaying competitive browsers on Windows is bad.
Windows users who download non-Microsoft browsers can change default browsers, install other options without vague warnings, and will not likely notice any difference in speed – on the desktop, anyway.
Mind you, Windows Phone isn’t a paradigm of virtue either. It’s almost as bad as iOS in that it prevents users from choosing a new default browser. There are third-party browsers in the Windows Phone Marketplace, but links will open in Internet Explorer unless users unlock their devices and install a hack.
Compared to Windows Phone and iOS, Android is a bastion of freedom and choice. (That one’s just for you, Android fans.) Users can download any third-party browser they’d like, set it as the default browser for their device, and never launch the default Browser (capital “B”) again.
Google didn’t even release Chrome for Android until 2012, and limited the browser to the latest version of the Android operating system, a surefire way to ensure it doesn’t get installed on many devices, given the slow or nonexistent upgrade cycle for many Android smartphones. That would be like Microsoft pulling Internet Explorer from Windows devices and then restricting it to people who run Windows 8.
Microsoft’s bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows is nothing compared to the exercise the company exerts over Windows Phone, and the restrictions Apple has placed on iOS, then. And that’s before we even get into Apple’s restrictions on other bundled applications, from Maps and Contacts to Mail and Messages.
The consensus among this morning’s reports on the European Commission’s decision to fine Microsoft is that the Commission is making a show of the Redmond-based company, proving that it will enforce its rulings. (They might be hoping that no one will notice the entire year that it, too, failed to spot Microsoft’s little “glitch.”) The Commission is the Ahab to Microsoft’s Moby Dick, and it won’t stop until Microsoft has been harpooned.
If only commission members would realize there are bigger, more dangerous whales in the sea.