DOJ ruling against Microsoft has little impact on browsers

Perhaps it is ironic that the U.S. government antitrust oversight of Microsoft Corp. expires on the very same week that Google unveiled its Chromebook.

After all, the U.S. Department of Justice investigation was spawned by the suspicion that Microsoft was abusing its operating-system market domination to stunt browser competition–which the company may have worried one day would dampen operating-system sales. Today, the Chromebook embodies that fear, namely by relying on a Web browser that does away with the need for an underlying OS almost entirely. 

Not surprisingly, Google officials have disparagingly contrasted the Chromebooks with Windows machines. 

Even though the DOJ put restrictions on Microsoft about how Windows handled browsers, the consent decree seemed to have little effect on the development of the browser market, observers said. Instead, competitive pressure brought about the vibrant market that the DOJ sought, and the variety of browsers today, and what they can do, is far richer than it was in 1998.

“The monopolistic behavior conducted by Microsoft that led to the consent decree was bad for the Internet industry as a whole. It restricted the amount of innovation that could happen on the Web,” said Mitchell Baker, chairperson of the Mozilla Foundation, which maintains the Firefox browser. “One of Mozilla’s greatest successes was that it was able to invigorate competition and innovation back into the browser market.”

“A lot has changed” in the world of browsers since the late 1990s, said Aaron Gustafson, group manager for the Web Standards Project, which measures how closely browsers adhere to Web standards.

Formally debuting in 1995, Netscape was the first widely used browser for the Web. But Microsoft worked hard to get its own browser in front of users, namely by bundling it with new copies of Windows. By the late 1990s, Microsoft enjoyed more than 90 percent of the browser market.

One of the reasons Microsoft was so eager to establish dominance in the browser market was that Netscape Communications saw the browser not just as a tool for users to look at Web pages, but as a platform for a wide range of enterprise applications, minimizing the need for operating systems such as Windows. 

“The browser is not only useful for browsing the Web but also can serve as a platform for the development of all sorts of network-centric software applications,” then-Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale explained to the DOJ in testimony in 1999. “This platform aspect of the browser … allowed for the development of software applications that were directed more to the Internet than to the desktop, and thus had the potential to serve as a partial substitute for the Windows OS as a development platform.”

The idea behind Netscape “wasn’t necessarily ahead of its time, but it was ahead of the infrastructure required to adequately support it,” noted Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT. 

In order to deliver rich Web interactively, and perhaps extend the need for Windows, Microsoft tied Internet Explorer to the underlying Windows platform through technologies such as ActiveX. This was not unusual: Other service providers, such as America Online, enhanced their websites with proprietary add-ons as well. It was a necessity because the supporting Web standards from the W3C did not encompass advanced functionality–such as support for video–that Web surfers wanted. 

Since those days, however, Web browser makers–even Microsoft itself–have moved in the direction of adding rich content through JavaScript, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), HTML5 and other platform-neutral standards. 

“Browsers are far more standards-compliant [today] than they were in 1998, but the bar wasn’t set very high in those days,” Gustafson said. By relying on standards, browsers could offer richer experiences while relying less on the underlying platform.

Microsoft tied Explorer too closely to Windows, the DOJ finally concluded, as part of a broad judgment against the software giant. Under the subsequent settlement program, finalized in 2002, Microsoft agreed to, among other things, make it easier for desktop-computer builders and end-users to specify the default browsers on their computers.

Today, about 55 percent of all Web surfing is done through Internet Explorer, according to Web management services firm Net Applications. In contrast, in 2001, Internet Explorer was used over 90 percent of the time, according to various calculations.

Many doubt that the subsequent proliferation of browsers, and the associated richer Web standards, came about due to this forced openness on the desktop, however. 

“I’m not sure it can be tied to that. To me, the consent decree seemed more about business and competition than it was about standards,” Gustafson said. 

“I’m not sure that the general standards-compliance of browsers can be traced to the decree so much as it can be to factors driving the continuing evolution of users’ online experience,” King agreed. 

Nonetheless, today’s Web browsing experience is far richer. And if Chromebook, which doesn’t have an internal hard drive, is a success, it will be due in part to the wide variety of platform-neutral Web applications available today. 

“We will have a better idea of the importance and the effectiveness of the consent decree as we observe Microsoft’s behavior over the coming months and years,” Mozilla’s Baker said.

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