Once again, those wacky Europeans are making life difficult for Microsoft. A site called EurActive is reporting that Microsoft’s ongoing antitrust tussle with the European Commission will result in the company being forced to help European Windows users opt for a browser that isn’t Internet Explorer. The details are yet to be worked out–the OS might include some sort of mechanism for choosing among multiple browsers, or Microsoft might be forced to work with PC manufacturers to install alternative browsers on new systems. Microsoft is apparently concerned enough that it has a secret plan to delay Windows 7’s release if necessary, reports our own Dave Worthington.
When you’re forced to do something you don’t particularly want to do, there are two ways to go about it: grudgingly or whole-heartedly. Previous legally-mandated editions of Windows such as the Korea-only Windows XP K and KN are the result of the first approach, and I’m not sure if they made anyone other than the government officials who required them happy.
But what if Microsoft poured its collective energy, intellect, and resources into making the best possible multiple-browser Windows–and then made it the standard version of the OS worldwide?
Such a move would make sense for Windows users for sure. There are more significant Windows browsers–IE, Firefox, Opera, Safari, Chrome, and lovable underdog Flock–than at any time since the mid-1990s. (Um, strike that: Even then, I don’t think there were half a dozen serious players.) For a variety of reasons, lots of use more than one of them, at least occasionally. And yet I don’t know of a single OS that acknowledges that it’s a multi-browser world, other than providing the ability to specify a default browser.
So what if Microsoft made it all easy in Windows 7? The possibilities are obvious:
–It could provide a better, easier-to-find mechanism for choosing the default browser. Starting with Windows setup itself, which could ask you for your browser of choice, then automatically download and install the newest version.
–It could let you install Windows with as many or as few browsers as you wanted. Including the option of an IE-free Windows, just to prove that the playing ground is indeed level.
–It could let the user opt out of the idea of a default browser altogether. If I had my druthers, I might vote for some sort of menu that let me choose the browser I wanted to launch on the fly each the the OS needs to display a page.
–It could sync bookmarks and other settings between browsers. Either by incorporating a utility for doing so or getting ambitious and building bookmarks into the OS as a core service. Bonus points if it lets you sync bookmarks across multiple browsers on multiple copies of Windows on multiple PCs.
–It could sync tabs between browsers. Automatically and transparently, even, so the stuff you’re browsing travels with you.
–It could make it easier to find plug-ins and add-ons, and to manage them across multiple browsers. Microsoft’s own Silverlight for sure, but how about other ones like Flash, too?
–It could help you manage updates and wrangle multiple installs of different versions of one browser. Like Firefox 3.0 and 3.1, for instance–right now, I’m jumping between them, and it’s not much fun. This notion seems like a stretch given that Microsoft doesn’t even do anything to assist with running multiple versions of IE on one PC, but as long as I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming big.
All of this stuff could be managed in a system-level dashboard of some sort–call it Browser Center. If Windows 7 had it and it was done well, I’d be excited, at least. So would lots of other folks–especially if browser choice became a key message of the Windows 7 marketing campaign. (It would sure count as Windows Without Walls.)
Back in the day, there was zero chance that Microsoft would contemplate doing any of this unless the law mandated it and it couldn’t wriggle itself out of doing so–the company clearly thought it was essential that it do everything in its power to make IE as pervasive as it could. Today? It’s possible that Microsoft still thinks that way, but I kind of doubt that the company’s fate rests on IE’s market share. Maybe, just maybe, the company could do itself more good by helping millions of customers get more out of the non-Microsoft browsers they’re already using than to gnash its teeth over IE’s declining share.
So I’d say there’s…oh, a ten percent change of Microsoft being willing to do something along these lines. No, five. But I still think it would be doing itself a favor if it scared itself a bit by taking radical measures to make its customers happy and productive.
If nothing else, it would be entertaining to see how the EU reacted to Microsoft embracing its call for browser neutrality with a vengeance. Not to mention Microsoft nemeses such as Opera’s Jon Van Tetzchner, Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker, and Google’s Sundar Pichai, all of who have thoughtfully weighed in with advice to the EC on how to address antitrust concerns relating to Microsoft’s bundling of OS and browser. How would they respond if Microsoft suddenly renounced its browser boogeyman status forever?