EU punished Microsoft for its history, not its crime

The real reason the EU fined Microsoft (a relatively small sum) at all: Because the company is a scofflaw

When news broke early on Wednesday morning that Microsoft had been fined more than $730 million by the European Commission for omitting a browser selection wizard from Windows 7 in 2011, the comment spaces of the Internet lit up with responses. Some had little sympathy for Microsoft, but others wondered why the software giant had been singled out for an apparently large punishment over an apparently trivial matter. Others wondered why Microsoft's peers -- Google and Apple in particular -- had escaped punishment. Still others asked who was next at the whipping post.

All of these comments missed the point: Microsoft was not punished for a technical omission alone. It was fined for being a scofflaw, and it was let off lightly -- the fine could've been maybe 10 times as much. Moreover, the issue is part of a long-running saga that dates from Microsoft's ascendancy, which is to say before it was a tired technology corporation scrambling to protect its cash cows on the legacy PC desktop and failing to gain traction in the new markets of note, namely Web information and the devices that provide access to it.

While Microsoft has maintained a poker face by consistently describing the matter as an oversight, the truth is it knows it's in the wrong. The company agreed, as part of its antitrust settlement with Commissioner Neely Kroes back in 2009, that it would present new Windows users with a selection screen to choose their Web browser.

This was a recognition it'd been abusing its then-monopoly position over the desktop operating market to prefer its own Web browser, Internet Explorer. This wasn't just about a free program; the choice of browser also loaded the dice for which programming environments, media capabilities, and even search engines would be used by default. By ensuring most users started with IE and had to make an active step to escape it, Microsoft knew it was ensuring its own ascendancy in other markets where it was not dominant.

When Microsoft agreed to provide a fair choice of browser, it was also agreeing to stop abusing its dominant position. Skipping that fair choice meant returning to a default of a skewed opportunity in software, search, and media, with the effects of the last one reaching far beyond Windows. Even if no one had been affected (and it seems millions were), the failure to offer the choice -- which went uncorrected for a year -- signalled Microsoft was not serious about the self-policing it had committed to do. The backlash was not over the incident itself, but rather over what it said about Microsoft's attitude to the European Commission.

That's the reason Microsoft is so penitent. That's also why Google and Apple are irrelevant. While they should watch carefully and learn to respect the European Commission, neither of them is in the position of having been convicted of abuse of a monopoly, so neither has a set of corresponding promises to keep. Who knows? Maybe their turn will come.

This story, "EU punished Microsoft for its history, not its crime," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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