Fox and the Hound

Browser Power Battle Resurfaces

Windows_10_Edge_lAlmost 20 years ago to the day, Microsoft released its first version of Internet Explorer (IE). It was a significant threat to Netscape’s Navigator, the dominant browser at the time. As Microsoft began integrating its browser in subsequent releases of the Windows operating system, government regulators started to question if the software giant should have unhindered access to such a growing economic control point.

In 1998, the United States Department of Justice initiated litigation against Microsoft for, among other things, planning to “unlawfully” tie its browser to Windows 98. The government saw the IE strategy as a potential “chokehold” on the browser market and thus the Internet. The European Commission has also challenged the integration of Internet Explorer in Windows, stating that this puts other browsers at a disadvantage.

In 2001, Microsoft made several concessions, ensuring Windows was friendlier to third-party browsers. In the end it was competition from Chrome, Firefox, Safari and mobility that diluted Internet Explorer’s market share. StatCounter and Wikipedia suggest that IE’s usage on desktops dropped from a 95% share in 2002 to 25% in 2015. Microsoft’s browser share is now estimated to be less than 15% across all devices.

However, Microsoft is again causing concern for at least one browser with its roll-out of Windows 10 this week. Microsoft’s new browser, Edge, is used as default on installation regardless of previous settings.

Mozilla CEO Chris Beard says the process of changing the platform’s default browser isn’t straightforward. In an open letter to Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, Mr Beard states that Windows 10 “strips users of their choice by effectively overriding existing user preferences for the Web browser.” It’s reminiscent of the original browser wars and the long-running legal battle between Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. The letter also raises the problem of Internet integration with an operating system. If the border between device and cloud was blurring at the turn of the century, it’s nearly invisible now.

As could be expected, the Edge browser has a home-field advantage on Windows 10. The operating system will be a complimentary upgrade for most current Windows users, offered for free as the company anticipates revenue potential in services attached to Windows — software will become less of a purchase and more of a subscription.

Users will still be able to adjust their default browser in Windows 10. Mozilla’s concern is about the clarity of the process of doing so. The Windows 10 installation process doesn’t remove previous applications, and these mostly remain undisturbed and in working condition.

Modern-day operating systems across all devices have a tightly integrated browser experience, and growth of personal assistants like Cortana, Google Now and Siri complicates the issue. Interaction is growing beyond the browser, into apps and deeper into devices. This is even more apparent in mobile platforms like Android.

Google lost some search share to Yahoo earlier this year, and we noted at the time that there’s an advantage in defaults (see Daily Insight: The Power of Defaults). Mozilla’s letter highlights how things have changed. It’s different for Microsoft this time — it’s unlikely there will be any high-profile repercussions from embedding a modern browser in its latest operating system. Edge will need to win its users.

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