Last month the European Commission stated its preliminary conclusion that “Microsoft’s tying of Internet Explorer to the Windows operating system harms competition between web browsers, undermines product innovation and ultimately reduces consumer choice.”
In my mind, there is absolutely no doubt that the statement above is correct. Not the single smallest iota of doubt. I’ve been involved in building and shipping web browsers continuously since before Microsoft started developing IE, and the damage Microsoft has done to competition, innovation, and the pace of the web development itself is both glaring and ongoing. There are separate questions of whether there is a good remedy, and what that remedy might be. But questions regarding an appropriate remedy do not change the essential fact. Microsoft’s business practices have fundamentally diminished (in fact, came very close to eliminating) competition, choice and innovation in how people access the Internet.
Let’s think back for a moment to the activities in question. In the mid-1990s Microsoft began developing Internet Explorer in response to the success of the product known as Netscape Navigator. In this period Microsoft developed a fine product (particularly the version known as IE 4). Kudos to Microsoft for this. Microsoft also promoted IE through activities that the US Department of Justice and the U.S. Courts determined to be illegal. As result, Internet Explorer ended up with well over 90% market share. Once this happened, Microsoft stopped browser development; even disbanding its browser team. The product stagnated and then became a prime vector for bad actors to inject spyware onto consumers’ computers. There was no meaningful response or innovation from Microsoft. Despite this, there was no effective competition from the marketplace, no commercial entities gaining success with other products. This is not surprising — I don’t think there has been a single example of anyone ever regaining market share from a Microsoft monopoly until Mozilla Firefox.
As it turns out, Microsoft hasn’t succeeded in stamping out all competition. Firefox has made a crack in the Microsoft monopoly. And, given a choice, a significant part of the European Union citizens have opted to use Firefox. This does not mean Microsoft’s activities haven’t done significant damage, or aren’t still benefiting Microsoft in ways that reduce competition, choice and innovation.
Equally important, the success of Mozilla and Firefox does not indicate a healthy marketplace for competitive products. Mozilla is a non-profit organization; a worldwide movement of people who strive to build the Internet we want to live in. I am convinced that we could not have been, and will not be, successful except as a public benefit organization living outside the commercial motivations. And I certainly hope that neither the EU nor any other government expects to maintain a healthy Internet ecosystem based on non-profits stepping in to correct market deficiencies.
Second, non-profit or not, Mozilla Firefox is an anomaly — the only product so far to even dent the competitive advantage Microsoft created for itself through its tainted activities. A single anomaly does not indicate a healthy, competitive, or innovative system.
Third, the damage caused by Microsoft’s activities is ongoing. Mozilla Firefox has made a crack in the Microsoft browser monopoly. But even so, hundreds of millions of people use old versions of IE, often without knowing what a browser is or that they have any choice in the quality of their experience. This makes it very difficult to bring innovation, choice or improved user experience to vast parts of the Internet.
The extent of the damage is so great that it makes it difficult to figure out an effective and timely remedy. I believe it’s worth some effort to try. It’s easy to look at Firefox market share and assume the problem is gone or the damage is undone. But that’s not the case. The drag on innovation and choice caused by Microsoft’s actions remains. At Mozilla we work to reduce this drag through direct action, and the results are gratifying. If the EC can identify an effective remedy that also serves to improve competition, innovation and choice, I would find it most welcome.
I’ll be paying close attention to the EC’s activities, both personally and on behalf of Mozilla. Mozilla has enormous expertise in this area. It’s an extremely complex area, involving browsers, user experience, the OEM and other distribution channels, and the foundations for ongoing innovation. An effective remedy would be a watershed event; a poorly constructed remedy could cause unfortunate damage.
I’d like to offer Mozilla’s expertise as a resource to the EC as it considers what an effective remedy would entail. I’ll be reaching out to people I know with particular history, expertise and ideas regarding these topics. If you’ve got specific ideas or concerns please feel free to contact me. I’ll post more as the discussion develops.