Weapon of Choice

Microsoft and the EU have been in dispute over claims of abuse of monopoly since, well, forever. This has resulted in a number of rulings and agreements, and even a billion-euro fine, the largest in European history. The latest argument has been about Internet Explorer, and the fact that it’s always installed as the default on Windows, discouraging users from trying other products, such as Google Chrome, Firefox and Opera. (I’m a longtime Firefox user myself.)

Naive users, by which I suppose I probably mean “normal, average users”, probably never even think of using anything other than Internet Explorer to access the internet. In fact, I distinctly remember that in some previous versions of Windows, IE was simply referred to in the installation as “The Internet”, as if you needed to install “The Internet” in order to get on line. But the monopoly moghuls at the EU decided that the public needs choice.

Internet Explorer dates back to 1995, when Microsoft bought the rights to the earlier web browser, Mosaic, and produced their own version. At the time, the most popular browser was Netscape (also derived from Mosaic), with more than 75% of the “market”. (I put the word in quotes, because they were given away free. The commercial purpose was to showcase the companies’ other technologies.) Netscape remained dominant at first, but because new versions of Windows came with IE already installed, the Microsoft product overtook its competitor, and more or less eradicated it by about 1998.

Anticipating accusations of monopoly, or what the Americans calll “anti-trust” behavior, Microsoft adapted the later versions of Windows so that it wouldn’t work without IE installed. This meant that they could claim that they weren’t “bundling” products, which is illegal in the USA and EU (“you can only buy A if you buy B”), but that they had a single, integrated product, Windows, which just happened to have a web browser embedded in it. This clever argument didn’t prevent a long and nasty anti-trust court case brought by the US Department of Justice.

The current dispute about IE in Europe has been resolved by an agreement from Microsoft that in the near future they will include a “browser choice” package in their normal system of software updates. All clued-up Windows users should be using Windows Update regularly, preferably automatically, to fix newly-discovered faults and security problems. (The vast majority of viruses and other nasties attack vulnerabilities which have already been fixed, and so can only affect computers whose owners don’t keep them up to date.)

So, very soon, when Windows Update runs as normal, you’re suddenly going to be presented by the EU-mandated browser choice screen, which will allow you to chose another browser to install as the default instead of IE. (If I understand correctly, IE still has to be installed to make Windows work correctly, but it doesn’t have to be visible to the user.) This is what it will look like:

Windows browser choice screen

Now, I’m a hardcore techie and i have to imagine what this will look like to normal people, but what I think it will do is confuse them and scare them half to death. “What is a browser?” “Why would I want one?” “I just want to get on the Internet.” “Make it go away.” And remember, this will pop up all by itself as part of the usual Windows Update.

To EU bureaucrats, it might seem like a solution to the issue of choice, but to me it looks more like shit approaching a large and rapidly rotating fan. A pilot programme will apply to users of Windows Update in the UK, France and Belgium from Monday. The results will be interesting.


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