Archive for March 20th, 2009

EC Principle 4: Microsoft’s financial and other incentives to distributors must be browser-neutral

March 20th, 2009

Microsoft has also used a range of techniques to encourage the distribution channel (often known as “the OEMs” for “original equipment manufacturers”) to ship IE. The OEM distribution channel is a funny thing. When I started working in this industry I assumed that the OEMs would pay software vendors for the right to distribute a piece of valuable software. But it turns out that’s backwards. The software maker pay the OEMs to include software on the OEM’s machine. So first the vendor makes the software, then they pay someone else to distribute it. The OEMs get to include software in their distribution packages for less-than-free — they make money by including software. This is because the distribution channel — the ability to actually get human beings to look at a piece of software — is so valuable. Software vendors end up paying for their products to reach people, and hoping to make money afterwards. For many product-focued people I think it is hard to internalize just how critical the ability to get people to pay attention to the product is, and how “distribution” can outweigh product quality in building success.

(This distribution channel is *so* valuable that Microsoft’s early efforts to promote IE in the 1990’s included threatening the OEMs with the loss of their ability to ship Windows (and thus the end of their business) if the OEMs didn’t ship IE exclusively. This practice stopped after the US judicial system determined a set of these sorts of practices to be illegal.)

Historically, software vendors generated revenue on upgrades and the licensing of subsequent and additional products. Today the models are diverse and complex, and may also include revenue-sharing between OEMs and software or service providers. For example, if you use a desktop search functionality, chances are high that the company you bought the machine from is getting a piece of revenue from the search provider.

This principle does not challenge these general business models. Like the other remedies, it is tied to the monopoly status of Windows, which requires all PC OEMs to work with Microsoft. In addition these programs cannot be matched by others because the Windows monopoly gives Microsoft a raft of unique tools. This principle prohibits the use of those tools to promote IE in ways that are unavailable to other browser manufacturers. It asserts that Windows monopoly status cannot be tied to financial incentives that further damage browser competition. Some examples of what this might mean are below.  There are undoubtedly many others.

  • pricing of windows cannot vary based on whether IE is included or not
  • payment for search/ad revenue or other service based revenues must not be conditional on IE being the browser.
  • co-marketing efforts or amounts cannot vary based on the status of IE
  • no financial incentives for OEMs to include links to IE anywhere in Windows

A complication of this principle is that it’s difficult to understand the complex relationships between Microsoft and the OEMs. There are a lot of details involved. It could be that one would agree intellectually, but find oneself unable to implement effectively. That’s again why I’ve separated out principles from remedies and implementation.

In summary, the OEM channel provides a way for a company with a lot of cash to pay to close off competition. This principle asserts that  a monopoly position plus the ability to pay to foreclose competition in related functionality is too much.

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