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24th Sep 2018

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EU reaches browser agreement with Microsoft

  • Microsoft's market dominance has helped it to distribute its Internet Explorer (Photo: EUobserver)

The European Commission has dropped its anti-trust case related to Internet browsers against Microsoft, following commitments from the US software giant to provide users with greater choice.

The commission's decision to accept Microsoft's commitments, making them legally binding as a result, ends a year-long wrangle between the two sides over the US firm's suspected abuse of its dominant market position.

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Microsoft's Windows operating system runs more than 90 percent of all computers in the world, giving it an unfair distribution advantage for its Internet Explorer browser, say critics.

Under the agreement, an online ‘Choice Screen' will allow Internet users to download other web browsers.

"Millions of European consumers will benefit form this decision by having a free choice about which web browser they use," said EU competition commissioner Neelie Kroes in Brussels on Wednesday (16 December).

"I hope today's decision closes Microsoft's sometimes uneasy relationship with the commission," she added.

A previous decade-long case which ended in 2007 saw the EU executive slap a €1.68 billion fine on the American company, coupled with an order to change several of its business practices.

Two months later a small Norwegian browser maker called Opera Software filed a complaint over Internet browsers – culminating in Wednesday's more conciliatory result.

Under the deal, internet users using Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 will be sent a ‘Choice Screen' by latest mid-March of next year, enabling them to access information on other web browers, and download them if they wish.

Added to this, consumers in the EU's 27 member states, plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, who purchase a new computer using Windows over the next five years, will automatically be sent the ‘Choice Screen'.

Rise of the competitors?

In a separate press conference in the EU capital, senior Opera Software officials welcomed the decision as an "important victory".

The small Scandinavian firm is a market leader in providing Internet access over mobile phones but holds a very small market share for personal computers.

"For two years we've been coming to Brussels, catching early morning planes. Now it seems like it was worth it," said the company's chief technology officer, Hakon Wium Lie.

Pointing to the increased number of hours EU citizens spend on the Internet, Mr Lie said for many, web browers had overtaken the motorcar in terms of importance.

Opera's spokesman, Thomas Vinje, said despite the robustness of Wednesday's decision, commission monitoring would be essential to ensure Microsoft followed through on its commitments.

"We've heard Microsoft say many times it's turning over a new leaf," he said. "But just as humans don't change their DNA, neither do companies."

Despite the reservations however, Opera and other Internet brower providers such as Google's Chrome are confident the commission decision will result in their market share going up.

"Most consumers in the past have chosen Internet Explorer because it came on their computers. Now the decision will be made on the merits," said Sundar Pichai, the head of Google's Chrome browser team.

Microsoft, for its part, welcomed the decision as the start of a new chapter in its relations with EU anti-trust officials. "We are pleased with today's decision by the European Commission, which approves a final resolution of several longstanding competition law issues in Europe," it said in a statement.

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