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Why the EU Shouldn't Force Microsoft to Install Other Browsers

In a move to both punish Microsoft for its anti-competitive actions and to benefit the consumer, the E.U. is requiring the software giant to give Windows users the option to use other browsers instead of Internet Explorer. But this may turn out to be not such a great move. 

Firstly the European Union's lawmakers have finally decided that Microsoft is "naughty"—a conclusion many have come to before, and that's a good thing. Microsoft's business practices in the past have often been revealed as unpleasant. And the new browser rulings are based on Microsoft using its monopoly to force Internet Explorer on Windows users as a wired-in, hard-to-avoid default that often didn't perform as well as its competitors. And that's a good thing too: an underhand trick like that won't benefit the end user, so a ruling in favor of the end user is a warning against doing something similar again.

But as part of the latest stage of the E.U. antitrust case, there's now the ruling that Microsoft must adjust Windows in a way that lets the user freely and easily choose a competing Web browser. Specifically, it must offer the user an option to use IE or a competing browser, and be able to set the alternative program as the default. It's also possible that OEMs will make a deal with Microsoft to install alternatives as part of their standard proprietary install package.

And on the surface of it, that seems all fair and good. If you want to use Safari for Windows or Firefox, Microsoft has to give you the option. Great.

Or so you may think. There's the rather large question of which browsers the E.U. deems as valid alternatives. Sure Firefox has a large following, and is technologically advanced—but what about Safari or Opera? And then, what about future browsers that may pop up and become successful? Defining which of these packages is valid is going to be tricky—as is the alternative option of drawing up a set of guidelines to define what a valid browser is. 

And then there's the issue of user confusion. Presumably the first time you use a new Windows machine, the E.U. is expecting Microsoft to install a pop-up that says something like: "Which browser would you like to use? Microsoft Internet Explorer (Default), Firefox, Opera, Safari..." It's easy to imagine the average computer user not caring too much for a plethora of options, and simply clicking "accept" with a stab at the Enter key simply to make the dialogue box go away. There's also the consumer who's not particularly computer-savvy to think about. Without a word of explanation on the strengths and weaknesses of each browser, there's even more potential for confusion.

In short, the politicians and lawyers want to get inside the OS and fiddle with it, in a similar way they did with the Mediaplayer antitrust ruling. Sure, it's not a major adjustment or a serious annoyance to users, but it's going to be tricky, and potentially messy. The remedy may at best be ineffective and at worst end up adding a layer of confusion to an operating system that's already cluttered with options—remember Vista's incessant "security" warnings, and the five different flavors that Windows 7 will be released in. Should the E.U. have restricted itself to imposing a hugely punitive fine for Microsoft?

Microsoft has until mid-March to respond, and is "committed to conducting our business in full compliance with European law. "We are studying the statement of objections," according to a company statement. 

[via Euractiv]