'Cut me down, and Google will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,' Microsoft claims in its latest submission to the European Commission. Force Microsoft to carry rival browsers in Windows, says the underdog formerly-known as The Borg, and risk making Google's position in the search market even more dominant.
Microsoft's not entirely absurd - but possibly not entirely relevant - allegation comes in a confidential submission to the Commission seen by the Financial Times, as Microsoft fights proposed remedies to its claimed violation of EU competition laws. A hearing on the matter may take place early next month when, in a staggering coincidence, Microsoft's latest search counterstrike, Kumo, is also due for rollout.
Microsoft's argument runs as follows. If it were forced to carry browsers other than IE with its Windows distributions, those browsers would likely default to Google for search - Firefox and Opera have agreements with Google to do this, and Google has agreed with itself to do this with Chrome. So what? Well, if the browser choice dialogue during the OS installation were to be designed by the PC OEM, as most sales of Windows are part of a PC sale, Google would be in a position to induce PC manufacturers to set search defaults in its favour. From its Borg days, Microsoft knows quite a lot about inducements, PC manufacturers and antitrust cases, so it could be said to be speaking from a position of knowledge.
The company's submission to the Commission does not appear to mention Kumo, but clearly having Google as the default for Firefox and Opera is likely to have the effect of steering most users of these browsers towards Google. Having more users of these, and indeed Chrome, in the European PC market - which is the Commission's objective - will therefore of itself certainly increase Google's dominance and weaken Microsoft's ability to compete in search. And inducements and sweethearts deals, should they take place, could make things worse, although the brutal business methods of the Borg in its pomp wouldn't be available to its non-evil successor.
However, these are surely two separate matters. The case Microsoft is fighting concerns browser market foreclosure, not search. It stems from a complaint by Opera last year, which was given support by Mozilla in February, with Google joining in (possibly recklessly, under the circumstances) shortly afterwards.
Google would be unlikely to get a whole heap of sympathy if it claimed that Microsoft was foreclosing it from the browser market, but from Opera's perspective, Microsoft's latest pitch looks entirely irrelevant. Let's get this straight - you think you should be allowed to carry on blocking me from competing in the browser market because if you're not, Google will continue to own the search market?
That's an issue that surely should be of some concern to the Commission, and yes, insofar as the browser's default search has an effect on the level of Google's ownership, the Microsoft case is related. And, if non-IE browsers that defaulted to Google for search achieved a substantial share of the European PC market, then those defaults would be an issue for the Commission. But the issue would be not the market shares share of the individual browsers, but the arrangements Google came to with their makers in order to get to be the default.
So it's still two separate cases, one of them yet to open. Microsoft's pitch may have some effect in muddying the waters and/or inducing the Commission to modify its proposed remedies, and it may also have a value in turning the spotlight onto a possible future antitrust candidate. But its pitch that statistics show that the browser market is not (or no longer?) foreclosed are possibly more persuasive. The company claims that its share in Europe has fallen from 85 per cent to 55 per cent in four years. The numbers are surely somewhat massaged, but XiTiMonitor, a regular browser survey that Firefox has boasted about in the past, indicates that IE continues to lose share, and as of April was down to 63.6 per cent, against Mozilla's 28.4 per cent. Mozilla's performance suggests to us that Opera's lowly position at 2.2 per cent may not be entirely the Beast of Redmond's fault.
IE clearly still has a lot more of the market than it would have if it had to compete on a level playing field, but the argument that the Commission is fighting the last war does grow strength. Browser wars are just sooooo Web 1.0.
Bootnote: A glance at the way Apple handles these matters suggests what the world might be like if Microsoft's nightmare came true. Safari on the Mac has Google effectively hard-wired into it. You want to change the default search? Oh. Safari on Windows appears (we're hazy on these things - in both cases, we had to induce Register staff to open up Safari for the first time in months) to default to Google but has Yahoo! available from a drop-down. We presume Eric sits out of the Apple board's Safari discussions as well as the iPhone ones. ®