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

 
 
By Don Reisinger  |  Posted 2014-12-19
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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    EU Browser Ballot Was Costly for Microsoft in Fines, Market Share
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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?
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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.
 

The days of the browser ballot being a bane of Microsoft's existence in Europe have officially come to an end. The browser ballot, implemented in the European Union as part of the settlement to an antitrust probe, caused quite a stir when it was announced in 2009. The ballot was designed to stop Microsoft's Internet Explorer from holding what the European Union believed was an unhealthy dominance over the browser market. But the ballot recently expired without a whimper, which is not surprising because competition in the Web browser space is simply not a hot button issue anymore. The world has moved on. The browser wars really ended years ago, and arguably were ending even as the browser ballot went into effect. The fact is people are caring less and less about browsers nowadays, as they have long since selected their favorite ones. Today, the world is obsessed with mobile devices, wearables or dozens of other things in the tech world. But in the end, the ballot helped radically alter the makeup of the browser market and even changed the way people across Europe viewed browsers.  This slide show looks back at the browser ballot and its legacy to show how the technology industry has changed dramatically since 2009.

 
 
 
 
 
Don Reisinger is a freelance technology columnist. He started writing about technology for Ziff-Davis' Gearlog.com. Since then, he has written extremely popular columns for CNET.com, Computerworld, InformationWeek, and others. He has appeared numerous times on national television to share his expertise with viewers. You can follow his every move at http://twitter.com/donreisinger.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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