Posts Tagged with “EC”

Microsoft – EC Formal Proposal

October 7th, 2009

Today the European Commission announced a formal settlement proposal in the Microsoft tying investigation. The ultimate effectiveness of this remedy depends in part on the implementation specifics and can only be determined over time. Once the EC and Microsoft have agreed to a final settlement, Mozilla hopes to work closely with Microsoft and the EC to implement the settlement in a way that creates the best user experience possible in the ballot setting.

Mozilla will continue our work to help internet users across Europe understand the choices available to them and why it is important to make an informed decision about the software one uses to access the web.

Proposed Microsoft – EC Settlement

August 17th, 2009

A few weeks ago Microsoft and the EC announced they are discussing a settlement proposal. Asa Dotzler did an evaluation of the proposal in view of the principles we have previously, noting both items that appear promising and those that appear weak. In all things the implementation details — all the way to the most mind-numbing level of specificity — will have an immense impact on the proposal’s effectiveness, so we’ll have to wait and see what those details turn out to be. Here I’ll outline a couple of aspects where the proposal itself could use improvement.

The overall point that may get lost is that — even if everything in the currently proposed settlement is implemented in the most positive way — IE will still have a unique and uniquely privileged position on Windows installations.

  • It is always there, often with prominent placement in the user interface. Choosing another browser as a default doesn’t change this.  Contrast this with all other browsers who aren’t available without separate installation.
  • Choosing another browser as a “default” does NOT mean that the other browser takes the place of IE. For example, the IE logo (“shortcut”) still remains unchanged on the desktop. The shortcut / logo of the browser the user has selected does not replace this, it is added elsewhere. As a result, the familiar location remains IE, not the user’s choice.
  • IE appears to retain other privileged positions in the user interface, depending on the exact windows operating system configuration one uses. The most important of these is probably in the Taskbar of Windows 7, which contains IE prominently. Microsoft has described the Taskbar as the “beachfront property of the Windows OS” — it’s next to the Start menu and you see it even when your desktop is covered with all your program windows.

Nothing we’ve seen suggests these items will change when a person chooses to make a different browser his or her default. These shortcuts back to IE remain unless the user makes another browser his or her default and then figures out how to “turn off” IE.

A second way in which IE remains uniquely privileged is the difference between having a piece of software on one’s machine and needing to download, install and make something your default. This may seem irrelevant to those of us who live and breath Internet software, but it’s a significant barrier for a lot of people. IE doesn’t face this issue since it’s on Windows machines when people receive them. The ballot could do a better job of reducing this difference. Right now the ballot is about downloading software. It could be designed to help people get further in the process of downloading, installing, opening and making the new software the default. As proposed, we expect to see many people who want other browsers get lost in the process before they actually succeed in making an alternative browser their main browsing tool.

A third way in which IE retains a uniquely privileged position is the Windows update system. It makes sense to include IE updates in this system, even if a different browser is the default — it’s important not to have “dead” pieces of old software on one’s machine for security reasons. So we do not take the position that the Windows Update system should exclude IE. However, a few safeguards for protecting the prior choice of another browser should be in place. Most important, if IE presents itself to the user as part of an automatically triggered update process, it should close immediately after the update process completes. It should not use this Windows update process as an opportunity to ask to become the default browser.

Another way IE remains privileged is that it looks like potentially all Microsoft products other than Office 2007 may still include hard-coded links to IE. This appears to be true even for the upcoming release of Office. This is the kind of “remedy” that so often seem ludicrous in hindsight. It is also at odds with a person who has already chosen to use another browser.

Comments more specifically tied to the exact language of the documents can be found at Harvey Anderson’s blog.

The importance of the myriad of details makes it very difficult to predict how effective the proposed remedies will be, or the extent of any  side-effects. In any case, addressing the issues raised above would improve the proposed remedy significantly.

Browser Ballot for Windows in Europe

July 24th, 2009

Microsoft and the European Commission have announced they are discussing a proposal for Microsoft to include a browser ballet in European versions of the Windows operating system. The ballot approach has many positive possibilities. However, the precise implementation will determine if the ballot approach is likely to be a useful remedy. For example:

  • Does the ballot apply to the copies of Windows that go through the “OEM channel” (approximately 95%) and are installed by the OEMS on computers when people buy them?
  • Will Microsoft’s update service present this ballot choice to people who already have PCs ?
  • Microsoft’s statement says their proposal will allow people to  “easily install competing browsers from the Web.” It’s not clear yet if the user can set another browser as the default browser — that is, the browser that opens up when one selects a URL. If the ballot screen doesn’t allow one to make something other than IE the default then the so-called “remedy” looks pretty flimsy.
  • Can Microsoft impose terms and requirements on products or providers listed in the ballot?

The answers to these types of questions will have a huge impact on the number of consumers who actually see a choice.

It is also critical that Microsoft respect the choice of people once they have chosen other browsers, and that neither Windows nor IE nor the Windows update system are used as tools to undo the choice of another browser. We would like to see a commitment to respecting these choices as well.

EC Principles: Synthesis

June 11th, 2009

UPDATE: In an odd coincidence, this post appeared just about the time Microsoft announced plans about shipping Windows 7 without Internet Explorer. This post is a synthesis of the public discussions within the Mozilla community over the past weeks. It is not intended — and certainly won’t serve — as a response to Microsoft announcements or plans.

Of the various principles I proposed, the ones that get the strongest positive response are those that protect the choices people have already made or are trying to make. These are outlined in principles 1: Respecting Previous Choice and 2: Windows Must Not Provide a Technical Advantage to IE.

Another set of principles generate a positive response, but feels much more low-key. This includes principles 5, Microsoft must educate people about other browsers and principle 6, Educating people about other browsers.

Principle 7, IE must support web standards, was controversial as a judicial / regulatory requirement. Many want IE to do this but are even very uncomfortable with a regulatory agency determining technical standards in a wildly changing setting such as today’s internet.

The more direct, product based Principle 3, Windows must enable people to choose other browsers, generated some very positive feedback and also some concerns. The positive response comes from the idea that one can’t address the problem without addressing the product. The concerns seem based in (a) complexity of user experience concerns; (b) concern over unintended consequences. The same is true of remedies that have direct effects on the OEM distribution channel. There’s a recognition the OEMs are third parties with their own goals, and an understanding of how hard it is to effectively change such relationships.

There are also people who argue that no one should be able to tell Microsoft anything about its products. People in this group may reject antitrust laws in general, or may reject their application to this kind of technology, or may not know of their existence. Probably all three play a part. Of those people who accept that antitrust law exists and might be applicable, there is a group that wonders if Firefox itself is solving the problem as its market share grows. In contrast, for many people Firefox is mitigating some of the effects of the tying of IE with Windows but does not change the distorted competitive setting that the tying creates.

From this I can say the following about potential remedies, assuming the EC confirms its preliminary conclusion that Microsoft’s tying of IE with Windows violates EC law.

The most basic aspect of a remedy should be to stop Microsoft from subverting the choice to use a browser other than IE. I gave some examples of this in my earlier posts. This will be increasingly important as use of alternative browsers spreads from the early adopters who are more comfortable with their computers to those for whom making any choice that isn’t the default is a bit scary. Forcing those people to figure out and then choose an alternative browser over and over because Windows has somehow pulled them back into IE is a structural problem. Fixing this is an easy and obvious way to protect consumers.

A further remedy that has been publicly discussed is requiring Windows to enable people to choose other browsers, whether through a ballot or not allowing IE to be the automatic default. In other words, helping more people know they have a choice. The lack of knowledge of this choice and the effect it can make is of course a key problem with today’s competitive structure, and is closely related to the integration of IE into Windows. Enabling more people to understand the choices available to them can have some very beneficial results. It is also complex and this aspect of a remedy must be very carefully crafted. The chances for creating a difficult user experience or unintended consequences are real, and so there is a level of concern about the details of what a remedy would look like among even those who support the principle. This mirrors both the challenge and the opportunity of working to provide greater user choice. The reality of the challenges reflects the great importance of the goal.

Mozilla and Firefox have demonstrated that the piece of software known as the “browser” is critically important to each individual’s online experience and to the overall health of the Internet. Building a setting in which consumers and citizens understand they have a choice, realize they can demand better by changing browsers, and aren’t penalized for doing so is a fundamental step in building an internet that retains vibrancy, innovation and choice.

“IE must comply with web standards.” (Opera has suggested that Microsoft must support web standards they have promised to support).

April 9th, 2009

This potential principle has received the most criticism from the Mozilla community to date; there appears to be little support for this principle as a basis from legal requirements from the EC.  This is quite different from agreeing that:

  • Microsoft *should* implement critical web standards; and that
  • the web has been, and continues to be, held back by the lack of good standards support in IE.

In fact, the ongoing drag on the web’s functionality caused by IE’s limitations remains an enormous problem.  We agree on the problem.

The concern is that regulating compliance with standards is fraught with negative side effects and it’s hard to see how to avoid them.  To start with, the standards in question would need to be identified.  Opera points out that Microsoft has itself identified some standards but having Microsoft determine the standards doesn’t serve as a long term solution.  Second, this principle would put enormous stress on the standards-setting process.  This process is difficult in any case, with a variety of different players trying to agree on technical direction and specification.  If Microsoft is legally required to implement a specification, then it is hard to see the process ever coming to a conclusion.  Third, there is the question of how one determines compliance with a standard.  Implementations almost always have bugs, some are serious, some are in the nature of the process.  Someone would need to test and evaluate.  Setting that up is complex and may well be a bad precedent.

Principle 6: Microsoft tools for developing content must not produce IE specific or Windows-specific results.

April 8th, 2009

Over 90% of the personal computer operating systems in the world are Windows.  As a result, application developers often use Microsoft tools to help write programs that work with Windows, and with related technologies or products that are integrated or often used with Windows.  Microsoft has a history of using its tools to lock out other products. For example, Microsoft web development tools  have often resulted in code that only works with IE.  The application developers may or may not even be aware of this.  They use a convenient tool provided by the operating system vendor, and end up helping extend the operating system monopoly to other products.

Examples of  tools to which this principle would apply include Microsoft Expression Web and Microsoft Office Sharepoint.  One might also include Silverlight and related development tools, or tools that do things such as embed MS Office documents in web pages.

This principle asserts that Microsoft cannot cause web or application developers to create IE-specific content by default.

EC Principle 5: Microsoft must educate people about other browsers

April 7th, 2009

One of the results of the Windows / IE integration is that millions of people believe that the “blue e” icon IS the Internet.  They are unaware of of Microsoft’s control over their online lives through this blue “e” or that they have additional choices.  This principle asserts that Microsoft should participate in correcting the misconception that it has created.  The monopoly of Windows and Microsoft in people’s computer experience means there is no other entity that can substitute for Microsoft here.

Mozilla has done an amazing job at educating some people about this.  We do this through community and word of mouth.  But Mozilla’s ability to reach some portion of people is not remotely the same as Microsoft’s ability to reach everyone.  Microsoft touches every single person who starts up a PC and touches those people, over and over and over again.

There are a number of ways in which this principle could be implemented.  Some could involve providing information about other browsers in Windows, which are included in principle 3.    There are certainly options beyond Windows, which is why I’ve made this a separate principle.

In the past the EC has levied fines against Microsoft.   A number of people have suggested that these fines could / should be used to educate people about their ability to have some control over their browser and resulting Internet experience.  I don’t know what kinds of structures EU law would impose on how this can be done.  So it’s possible this is something the regulatory structure doesn’t allow.

Back from silence

April 7th, 2009

I’ve been traveling and on vacation the last couple of weeks and so have been silent here. There are a couple more posts about the EC I want to turn to, interspersed with some other topics.

As to the EC, the potential principles I haven’t yet addressed are below. In addition, I want to address why I believe there are significant competitive issues even though Firefox is gaining marketshare.

  • Microsoft must educate people about other browsers (or fines levied against Microsoft should be used to support open source projects and education).
  • Microsoft tools for developing content must not produce IE specific or Windows-specific results.
  • IE must comply with web standards. (Opera has suggested that Microsoft must support web standards they have promised to support).

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.

EC Principle 3. Windows must enable people to choose other browsers

March 19th, 2009

Some examples of what this might mean in practice summarized below from the earlier post.

  • Option to download other browsers must be presented when a user is updating IE or Windows.
  • IE may not become the default browser except in specified legitimate circumstances.
  • Windows must ship with alternative browsers installed and offer users a choice.
  • Windows must ship with a mechanism for downloading and installing a user’s browser choice.
  • Windows may not include a browser (”untying” required).

Another way of thinking about this is : How much distribution advantage can Windows provide to IE? If one answers “as much as Microsoft wants with no limits” then this principle wouldn’t be implemented. If one answers “Windows can’t provide any distribution advantage to IE” then one would likely end up supporting a remedy that requires Windows to install a browser separately, based on a consumer’s decisions. If one answers “some” then one look to a of “must carry” remedy; a remedy that has been reported as of interest to the EC. Or one might look to some of the other options listed above.

One complication is the balance between encouraging competition and encouraging ease-of-use for the consumer. One might believe that a monopoly product like Windows should not provide any distribution advantage to IE, and yet simultaneously question whether an operating system without a web browser makes sense. Intellectually the principle might be right, but the remedy hard on consumers. I suspect many in the Mozilla world find ourselves looking at this dilemma.

Another complication is Microsoft’s long history and impact within the computer industry. Some of us have lived with Microsoft’s dominance for many cycles of the industry. To this group, the newer participants who believe Microsoft is a reasonable company that behaves within normal parameters are naive. To the new participants, the old-timers are weighted down by history and baggage and don’t see today clearly. It’s difficult to cross this divide.

One thing is clear. The ubiquity of Windows has meant the ubiquity of IE. As a result, millions of people believe that the blue “e” icon on their desktop IS the Internet. Changing that is a long, hard job. And until we do we magnify the difficulty of bringing competition to the browser space.

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