EU commission taking a tech tack hard to fathom

Can anyone understand the European Union's antitrust regulators?

If so, do not hesitate to provide some online comment.

Last week, the EU antitrust regulators told Microsoft not to repeat the mistake of denying consumers a choice of rival web browsers in its new Windows 8 operating system, in a dispute that has already cost the software giant more than 1 billion ($NZ1.6 billion).

EU competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia said he had spelt out his concerns to Microsoft about Windows 8, its new flagship software product which was released on Friday.

Thinking about Mr Almunia's comments, I wondered aloud (as it happened) what he was talking about. Each of the computers I have ever bought has arrived with IE as the explorer of choice. And for a long time, that was my browser of choice. And while my latest laptop arrived with IE on it, I put the word "Firefox" into Bing, went to the site, downloaded the Mozilla Firefox browser, ticked the box and made it my default browser and never looked back. I also downloaded Google's Chrome because when my son visits, he prefers Chrome.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates and chief executive Steve Ballmer did not send me an email asking me to desist from using anything other than IE, which by the way I update at regular intervals because I can.

Reuters reported a Microsoft spokesman saying that after discussions with the commission, Microsoft had changed some aspects of the way the browser-choice screen worked on Windows 8, and those changes would be implemented by the time Windows 8 launched.

Mr Almunia's warning came with charges Microsoft had broken a promise to offer European consumers a choice of rival browsers in its previous version of Windows, which could result in a substantial fine.

Microsoft promised three years ago to offer browser choices to settle an EU antitrust investigation and avoid a penalty that could have been as much as 10% of its global turnover. But the European Commission said Microsoft had not fulfilled its pledge between February last year and July this year, confirming an earlier Reuters report.

Microsoft could face a significant fine, as it is the second time it has failed to comply with an EU order.

Microsoft, which has already been penalised 1.6 billion in the past decade for infringing EU rules, apologised. It has four weeks to reply to the commission's "statement of objections", or charge sheet.

"Although this was the result of a technical error, we take responsibility for what happened, and we are strengthening our internal procedures to help ensure something like this cannot happen again," the company said in a statement.

Mackline, of course, does not agree with cartels, price fixing and monopolistic behaviour. However, in an open and free market, should companies be fined such massive amounts of money because they provide an operating system that is geared towards people using its browser rather than a competitor's?

If Mackline can easily download another browser choice in New Zealand, perhaps there is something stopping EU residents from doing the same.

Investigations will continue.

Mr Almunia said he had no reason to go after Microsoft's operating system for tablets, a market that included rivals Apple and Google.

"We have looked at Windows RT and, on the basis of our investigation so far, there are no grounds to pursue further investigations on this particular issue," he said.

The commission in July said several companies had accused Microsoft of only allowing its own IE browser to be installed on devices running Windows RT.

Microsoft's share of the European browser market has roughly halved since 2008 to 29%: on a par with Chrome but behind Mozilla's 30% share, according to web traffic analysis firm Statcounter.

With the Microsoft case heading for resolution, the next web-related battle for the commission is likely to be with Google, the target of complaints by Microsoft and more than a dozen other rivals over its core search-engine business.

Google, the world's most popular search engine, is now in talks with the EU watchdog that could help it avoid sanctions which could amount to $NZ6.32 billion.

It's a dog-eat-dog world of technology in Europe right now.

dene.mackenzie@odt.co.nz

Twitter: @mackersline