Microsoft and the Browser Ballot
The newspapers reported Saturday that Microsoft and the European Union are edging toward a browser ballot deal. Both the EU and Microsoft have confirmed that they are in discussions over this. Microsoft has yet to release details on this, but the basic notion is that Windows users in Europe would be presented with a screen, presumably on first use of Internet Explorer, to help them install competing browsers. The details on this matter enormously, but without those in hand, we should focus on the big picture.
I confess to mixed feelings. On the one hand, this is precisely the remedy that I proposed in a 2005 paper. I called this remedy adding rather than subtracting. If Windows really was the best distribution platform on the planet, you might come closest to restoring ex ante competition in browsers by insisting that Microsoft itself distribute competing browsers. Yes, we can all just download more browsers—I current have four on my desktop—but the behavior of industry insiders suggests that they think that there are competitive advantages to being preinstalled in some fashion. Of course, it isn’t clear that the browser ballot will do that, hence the need for details.
But it sounds as if I should claim victory and leave the field, so why the mixed feelings? The computer market has changed dramatically in the intervening years. The emergence of Google, netbooks and smartphones have changed the core competitive landscape for computing. That change was precisely what Microsoft feared from Netscape and what Bill Gates described in his Internet Tidal Wave memo, but it is really happening now.
That means that a remedy that may have made perfect sense in 2005—I couldn’t have been wrong then certainly?—may no longer make sense in mid-2009. I haven’t thought that through yet. Of course, the empiricist within me is eager to see the browser ballot test run in Europe, but presumably our regulators aren’t running the world just to provide data to lawyers and social scientists.