Today I would like to react to the vague of criticism and skepticism that crushed on the announcement that the European Commission would give way to the filing of an anti-trust complaint by the Norwegian software vendor Opera.
Critics were essentially insisting that this whole new legal action was a (bad?) remake of the trial that more or less ended up by the unbundling of Windows Media Player from Windows not such a long time ago. As everyone knows, the practical outcome of this hardly left a dent in Microsoft’s monopoly on the desktop. Other critics were keen on pointing out that the true answer Microsoft’s domination on the desktop should be brought by the market. Here again, that point was applied in the context of the Opera complaint.
I usually tend to give credit to the latter kind of critics. After all, trials will have a limited action if real competition does not exist on the market. Yet, most legal actions and trial bear -even in a purely economical context- a symbolic force that “the market” will never be able to have. A trial against Microsoft on any particular point of its monopoly (and for that matter, on any corporation perverting the market because of its illegitimate monopolistic position) essentially conveys the message that regardless of the possible sanction against the company, its wrongdoings are not morally tolerable anymore. Were it only because of this last point, I still do find that that legal actions are sometimes justified.
The Opera “case”, if it is apt to qualify it by this name, is actually a bit different. Certainly the bundling of Internet Explorer is problematic. While it might be argued that Firefox won 30 % of market share by its sole merit, it might also be argued that Internet Explorer won up to 94% thanks to the sole merit of its birth (inside Microsoft’s Corp) and its bundling with the Windows operating system. The Opera story however, conveys two new concerns.
The first one is, as Hakon Lie coined it himself, is about the future of the Web. Several issues plague Internet Explorer: safety, lack of support for certain standards, an oddly degraded mode precisely when it is set to run in its unforgettable “Standards Mode”… Someone at Mozilla recently wrote that most Americans spend more time on their browser surfing the Internet than driving their car. That last one should make us think a bit about the importance of web browsers and open standards in general.
The second concern is the one of the freedom and the integrity of the Internet. But this issue is perhaps best embodied by the name of one Microsoft’s technology: Silverlight. I should rather call it Silverlight and open standards. Just like with OOXML, Microsoft sometimes seems to have issues with open standards on the web. And instead of focusing on how to build and keep the Internet open, it tries every trick in the book to have people deploy and use its Flash-like technology, Silverlight. Silverlight is actually much more than Adobe’s Flash, and while Flash is also problematic to the Internet itself, Silverlight benefits from Microsoft’s own platform’s ubiquity to spread quickly. The rest of the strategy seems to include the heavy pressure or payment for well-known web sites and media services to migrate to Silverlight.
The problem with this of course, is that no matter what the extravagant Mr De Icaza will say or do, Silverlight is not multi-platform (running it on Linux is a pain at best) and that it truly locks users away while transforming the Internet into a multimedia delivery service where Microsoft is the sole technology provider and the content comes from major media industry players. At this point I will have people objecting that it’s not that bad, but it is important then to counter this argument by reminding that the Internet has never been a multimedia delivery service for major commercial content owners. Television has been, and the architecture of the major news and TV networks in general is orthogonally different from the architecture of the Internet. But Microsoft does not seem to care: they broke the ISO and some national standards bodies to have OOXML standardized, they may well be willing to break the Internet in order to satisfy their goals.
In the end, what the European Commission might go against is not the bundling of an application and a platform, it is the actual openness and -would dare to say this without touching too much to not so different issues?- neutrality of the Internet. Remember: the Internet is our common good, our common wealth. Don’t let it go private.