EU Browser Ballot Was Costly for Microsoft in Fines, Market Share

EU Browser Ballot Was Costly for Microsoft in Fines, Market Share
The Legal Maneuvers Actually Date Back to 1993
The Investigation Starts in January 2009
EU Regulators Order the Browser Ballot to Begin
The Ballot Listed First Tier and Second Tier Browsers
Second Tier Browser Developers Were Miffed
Microsoft Makes a Costly Error
Chrome, Firefox Enjoy Success
Internet Explorer's Share Tumbles
The Browser Ballot Is Discontinued
Did It Really Help Competition?
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EU Browser Ballot Was Costly for Microsoft in Fines, Market Share

By Don Reisinger

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The Legal Maneuvers Actually Date Back to 1993

The issues Microsoft had in Europe actually date back to 1993 when Novell filed a complaint in the continent over Microsoft's licensing practices. Novell argued that Microsoft's licensing, which required royalties to be paid to the software giant by any of its operating system's suppliers, was unfair and hurt business. Although Microsoft reached a settlement in 1994 on the issue, it put the company on Europe's radar and soon created all kinds of drama.

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The Investigation Starts in January 2009

The actual investigation into Microsoft's dominance in the browser market started in January 2009. The EU announced that it was investigating Microsoft's bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows to determine whether that hurt competition in the browser market. Of course, Microsoft argued that it didn't, but did say that it would take Internet Explorer out of Windows 7 to allay any fears. It wasn't enough.

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EU Regulators Order the Browser Ballot to Begin

By the end of 2009, the so-called "browser ballot" era began. In 2009, Microsoft agreed to provide all new Windows users with an option to download the browser of their choice for a period of five years. Microsoft would let users pick from 12 browsers listed in random order with the intention of making clear to all EU consumers that there were more browser options out there than Internet Explorer.

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The Ballot Listed First Tier and Second Tier Browsers

Interestingly, the browser ballot was broken out into two tiers, with one containing more prominent brands and the other lesser-known software. In the top tier between 2010 and 2012, Microsoft offered Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Opera and Safari. After August 2012, Microsoft would display all the same browsers except for Safari in the first tier, replacing Apple's software with Maxthon.

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Second Tier Browser Developers Were Miffed

The second tier wasn't necessarily the best place to be for browser companies, but it wasn't awful. The second tier consisted of browsers that many folks hadn't necessarily heard of, including Lunascape an Comodo Dragon. Second-tier companies weren't always pleased with their position and at one point issued a petition to the EU, requesting that Microsoft add text or an image to its ballot to show that there were more than five browsers. The issue, they said, was that Microsoft's use of a slider mechanism to show browsers hurt their chances of being seen by users. Microsoft declined to change the design of its ballot.

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Microsoft Makes a Costly Error

Microsoft made a huge error with Windows 7 Service Pack 1. For over a year, the release didn't point users to BrowserChoice.eu, the site that showed the ballot, cutting out 28 million computers from the choice. The EU took considerable time to discover the issue, but eventually did and fined Microsoft 561 million euros, or more than $730 million, at the time. Microsoft said it was not intentional, but the EU wasn't having it.

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Chrome, Firefox Enjoy Success

According to data from analysis tool StatCounter, Microsoft's browser ballot did wonders for Firefox and Chrome in the European Union. While Internet Explorer enjoyed about 70 percent market share in 2009, Chrome was at approximately 10 percent. Firefox was up there, but still lagging far behind. As of this writing, Chrome now has about 45 percent of the browser market in Europe, according to StatCounter, while Firefox stands at about 28 percent. All others except for Internet Explorer hold just single-digit market shares.

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Internet Explorer's Share Tumbles

As Chrome and Firefox started to grab market share in the EU, Internet Explorer gave it up. As of this writing, StatCounter puts Internet Explorer's market share at under 20 percent, meaning Microsoft has not only lost 50 percentage points in five years but has also watched Chrome more than double its market share.

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The Browser Ballot Is Discontinued

Finally, after five long years, Microsoft was allowed to discontinue the browser ballot in December 2014. The discontinuation was part of the deal with the EU, though it's unclear whether the eurozone's commissioners will continue to keep an eye on Microsoft and how it uses the combination of Windows 10 and Internet Explorer in the coming years. Given the history, it's likely that Microsoft will remain under scrutiny in the EU.

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Did It Really Help Competition?

Ultimately, the big question on everyone's mind is whether the browser ballot actually improved competition in the marketplace. It's certainly true that Internet Explorer is no longer a dominant force. The company that benefited most from the regulation was Google, if market share is to be the only guide. Small browsers in the second tier, however, were hard-pressed to find much value in the browser ballot, as few of them gained real market share. It appears that in the grand scheme of things, Google took most of the market share Microsoft lost, leaving scraps for everyone else.

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