In the late 1990s, the United States Department of Justice alleged that Microsoft’s victory in the decade long ‘Browser Wars’ was due to the fact that Microsoft had bundled a copy of Internet Explorer within its Windows operating system. These allegations lead to the case United States v. Microsoft where the U.S. Justice Department and 20 state attorneys general filed an antitrust suit against Microsoft, charging the company with abusing its market clout in order to crush competition.
To many, the highlight of the case was the June 7, 2000 ruling by Judge Thomas Jackson that ordered the company to break up. This wasn’t an era of “too big to fail”; it was a time of “too big to stay together”. Though eventually a federal appeals court overturned this ruling a year after. The Department of Justice and Microsoft settled in November of 2001, and the company agreed to make sure Windows was compatible with non-Microsoft software, and to untie its browser from the OS.
The antitrust provisions outlined in this case finally expired on May 12, 2011, and the technology sector is now a very different place. Microsoft is no longer the market hegemon it once was, having been usurped by IBM and former competitor Apple. Netscape, who accused Microsoft of anti competitive behavior by bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, no longer exists and has had its remnants swallowed up by the non-for-profit Mozilla foundation.
Since Microsoft is living in a post-antitrust world right now the company has decided once again to tie their browser to Windows. In the Windows 8 developer preview, which was made available to developers earlier this year, Internet Explorer 10 is deeply integrated into the fabric of the OS as well as the ‘Metro’ user interface and many have reported that the web browser is impossible to remove.
In previous iterations of Internet Explorer and Windows, Microsoft had provided instructions on how to uninstall the browser from the OS. With Windows 8, Microsoft has only provided a method for “turning on” or “turning off” the browser. This “on or off” functionality is not inherently new, as it also existed in Windows 7, albeit it was also possible to completely remove the browser from the OS.
A Microsoft spokesperson told Hardware Canucks that, “IE is an integral part of Windows, and that pattern hasn’t changed with Windows 8 and IE10. And while we believe that the best way to experience the Web is to use IE on Windows, customers will still have the option to use other browsers. This includes the ability to “turn off” Internet Explorer, a feature we originally introduced with Windows 7”
While the issue of Microsoft again tying its browser to the OS is interesting considering this behavior once lead to an anti-trust case, the technology world is a very different place now and this sort of behavior almost constitutes a type of normality.
Take Apple’s iPad, for instance. On the device that is largely eroding the PC market, it is impossible to unbundle the installed Safari browser from the OS, as it is with the mail application.
What Microsoft was admonished for doing in United States v. Microsoft is simply the norm now, but there are no players that are dominant enough yet to warrant an anti trust case. Who knows? Perhaps in a weird twist of fate we’ll see United States v. Apple in the near future?