By Harry McCracken | Thursday, June 11, 2009 at 3:10 pm
Looks like any lingering question about the European Union’s antitrust case against Microsoft delaying the release of Windows 7 just ended. Earlier today, Cnet’s Ina Fried reported that Microsoft will release versions of the new OS that are sans Internet Explorer for sale in Europe. Microsoft has confirmed its intentions.
The Europe-only versions of Windows 7 will have an “E” appended to their names (such as “Windows 7 Home Premium E), and their existence apparently eliminates concerns that Microsoft is competing unfairly with Mozilla, Opera, and other browser makers by bundling IE with the world’s dominant operating system. European consumers and businesses will be free to download IE or any other browser, of course. And Microsoft says that PC manufacturers will be able to bundle IE if they so choose, in which case the end result will still be a computer with Windows 7 and IE 8 installed.
Other options for placating Europe that had been discussed included possibilities such as allowing users to choose their browser as part of the Windows setup process. Microsoft says that other options remain open for the future, but that its decision to strip out IE will allow it to ship IE on schedule in October.
I’m having a hard time getting too worked up about this news, either pro or con. On one hand, I think the Web’s a better place when multiple browsers are widely used. The existence of an IE-free version of Windows will presumably spur some European PC manufacturers to bundle other browsers, and some consumers to try Chrome, Firefox, Flock, Opera, or Safari. Which is good.
But the whole issue of Microsoft’s bundling of IE is like a blast from the past, when Netscape was the dominant browser and Microsoft effectively hobbled it by bundling IE for free with Windows. That was an unfortunate development for the Web and people who used it, since it led to the era in which nearly everybody used IE–and IE was an aging, unreliable, insecure behemoth of a browser that fairly screamed “I have no viable competition!”
But sorry, Europe–it’s too late to go back in time and give Netscape another shot at success. And you know what? It took awhile, but the browser situation resolved itself adequately enough largely through private-sector developments. Firefox came along, and it was so good–and IE 6 so crummy–that it was an instant success. The resurgence of the Mac platform helped to make Safari viable. Chrome is a strong browser from a company (Google) that’s far more powerful on the Web than today’s Microsoft is. The Opera folks just keep plugging away. Microsoft has reacted by breathing life back into IE.
All of which has led to an era in which Internet Explorer’s market share has shrunk dramatically. And that of its rivals has grown. And there are multiple successful browsers engaged in fierce and innovative competition to come up with cool new stuff. Microsoft may have tried to abuse its OS monopoly to crush other browsers. But we can now definitiely say that it failed.
It’s conceivable that the Web might have ended up a better place if governments had reacted swiftly to Microsoft’s anti-Netscape tactics in the mid-1990s. (Although maybe not: As usual with companies that fail to compete with Microsoft, Netscape made some ill-advised moves on its own which didn’t help its cause.) But governments simply moved too slowly: Microsoft’s deal with the EU is a solution to a problem that no longer exists.
That’s my take, at least. What’s yours?