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Microsoft Restrictions On Web Browsers Draw Competitors’ Ire

Posted  May 23, 2012

Microsoft’s restrictions on third-party web browsers in its upcoming Windows RT mobile operating system is drawing criticism from the general counsel of the Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit organization responsible for the development of the popular Firefox web browser.

Google, which has developed its own Chrome web browser, has wasted no time in joining Mozilla’s criticism.

Windows RT is a slimmed-down version of Windows 8, the next-generation Windows operating system due late this year.  Windows RT is specifically designed for ARM microprocessors, which are commonly used in mobile devices like tablets and smartphones.  It represents the first version of the Windows operating system not intended for the x86 architecture used in desktop and laptop computers for decades.  In short, Windows RT is Microsoft’s response to the runaway successes of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems.

The restrictions at issue allegedly prevent other browsers from running in Windows RT’s “classic” Windows mode, although other browsers can be used in the new Windows Metro “tiled” mode.  The controversy evokes memories of 1998, when Netscape, Mozilla’s predecessor, accused Microsoft of illegally bundling Internet Explorer with Windows 95.  The controversy led to a series of lawsuits against Microsoft, including United States v. Microsoft, and the European Commission’s investigation.

However, 14 years have gone by, and the operating system landscape has shifted dramatically.

Nevertheless, and perhaps not surprisingly, Microsoft’s decision to restrict third-party web browsers immediately attracted the interest of the United States government and the European Commission.  The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is reportedly looking at Mozilla’s and Google’s allegations, and the European Commission is exploring the issue as well.  The EC is likely to invoke Microsoft’s commitment to give European Union consumers a choice of browsers, implemented as the so-called “browser ballot” agreement with the European Commission.  However, both the European and U.S. cases involved desktop and laptop operating systems, and their applicability to Windows RT is debatable.

In addition, Microsoft’s announced restrictions on third-party applications are hardly unusual for mobile devices.  For example, through its popular App Store, Apple exerts complete control over which applications can be installed on iPhones and iPads, and Apple’s policies have been repeatedly criticized for allegedly restricting competition from third-party applications and services.

Tagged in: Antitrust Enforcement, Antitrust Policy, International Competition Issues,