EU’s Antitrust Ruling Hurts Consumers More than Microsoft

Published January 23, 2009

Europe prides itself on being at the forefront of global trends, but the European Commission’s recent antitrust ruling against Microsoft shows the Continent’s regulators are still living in 1999. It’s as if European judges are still dancing the Macarena while the rest of the world—and the technology market—long ago moved on.

Europe’s mistakes will work to the competitive advantage of the United States in IT-as long as we don’t follow suit with similar over-regulation.

Opera Software, an Oslo, Norway-based company, contends Microsoft’s ability to package Internet Explorer (IE) with Windows gives it an unfair advantage in the European Union’s browser market. But a court should not be moving in to “correct” the fact that only about 5 percent of Europe’s computer users surf the ‘Net with Opera’s browser. The individual choices European consumers make are providing all the correction the market needs.

Microsoft’s IE held a global market share of nearly 90 percent in 2004, but that share has fallen steadily since then as consumers voluntarily flocked to other browsers such as Mozilla’s Firefox. According to the French tech-research company XiTi Monitor, Microsoft’s share of the European browser market is now below 60 percent. That is the lowest share for Microsoft since the late 1990s when IE overtook Netscape—itself once considered an unconquerable browser colossus that now sits in the growing landfill of Internet business failures.

Proof of Europe’s healthy browser market can be found in the Firefox browser’s remarkable climb. Firefox, which debuted in November 2004, held a 20 percent market share worldwide just 14 months later. By the end of 2008, 31 percent of Web surfers in EU countries used Firefox—and nearly all of its gains seem to have come at the expense of Microsoft’s IE.

The rapid success of Firefox proves Microsoft’s bundling of IE with Windows does not guarantee consumers will use IE when better options are available. And it is the market, not a panel of judges, that is teaching Microsoft a bitter lesson: Improve your product or lose.

More proof of a healthy market: Google’s new Chrome browser is being used by 1 percent of European computer users. That figure is unimpressive—until one realizes Chrome debuted just four months ago and is already putting a scare into all of its competitors.

The proliferation of fierce competition in the European browser market is plain to see—even if Opera fears it may be falling behind and managed to convince EU bureaucrats to rig the game. The European Commission is not doing Opera, or computer users, any favors with this attempt to shield the company from market forces.

It is long past time for bureaucrats, judges, and lawyers to shed the false notion that they can pick software winners and losers better than consumers can.

James G. Lakely ([email protected]) is managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News, a publication of The Heartland Institute in Chicago, Illinois.