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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

March 6, 2013 at 11:56 AM

Microsoft’s $731 million EU fine: Silly all around

Microsoft’s $731 million fine for failing to provide browser-switching software on some European PCs is silly.

It’s all ridiculous — the software, the fine and Microsoft’s failure to comply with the rules.

The “browser choice” software was part of the European Union’s 2009 crackdown on Microsoft’s past abuses of its PC operating-system monopoly. Microsoft complied until early 2011, when it shipped the first “service pack” update for Windows 7. The update broke the mechanism that delivered the browser choice software, affecting at least 28 million PCs before it was fixed.

When caught, Microsoft bowed, scraped and offered to provide the browser choice software for 15 months longer than the EU’s European Commission had required, to no avail. Meanwhile, PC sales have slowed, Microsoft’s browser share is down to about 50 percent and sales of tablets — with locked-in, bundled browsers — have taken off.

Driving to work this morning, I thought there are parallels between the “browser choice” rules imposed by the European Union and some of Seattle’s wacky transportation plans. Both were dreamed up by highly educated, well-meaning bureaucrats who give more weight to lofty policy goals than the actual effect their decisions have on the people they’re serving.

For instance, the EU was trying to reduce Microsoft’s dominance of the browser market by offering more choices to consumers. But the execution was weak. How much did it really help consumers to have a “browser choice” application pop up on European PCs preloaded with Microsoft’s Explorer browser, forcing them to sort through their browser options?

This is an overly complex solution to a problem that didn’t really need fixing. Market forces — namely the rise of Google’s Chrome and other browsers — reduced Explorer’s dominance around the world despite Microsoft’s monopoly on PC operating systems. The market share of the Explorer browser fell even during the period when Microsoft “goofed” and left out the browser choice software in Europe.

Switching browsers is one of the easiest changes you can make to the configuration of a PC, even without a government mandated pop-up. It’s so easy, you may have already done so when you updated utilities such as Adobe Flash and Oracle’s Java. During the constant upgrades those programs require, Google and Ask.com slip their browser software onto your machine, unless you take action to block the installation. The option to install their browser software is already chosen for you during the updates, and you have to uncheck a box to preserve your PC settings.

If regulators want to improve life for consumers and make browser competition above board, they should prevent this update hijacking.

The browser-choice menu reminds me of the way Seattle cut the southbound capacity of Highway 99 by a third, giving one of three lanes over to buses. It probably sounded like a great idea if you were pursuing a broad goal, to change the mix of transportation usage. Traffic planners may have thought they were giving people more choices, by making bus travel more competitive with cars.

But it didn’t turn out that way. Perhaps a few drivers who use the road regularly are so frustrated by the resulting congestion and confusing signage around intersections that they’ve started taking buses (even though the buses come less often, stops are farther apart and seats are full on busy routes). Mostly, the attempt to force a policy-driven change on people just irritates them, especially when they look over at the empty lane they paid for, in which they rarely see a bus.

It was a ham-handed, unrealistic and ineffective move. Instead of making life better for people and giving them more choices, it made things more complicated and frustrating.

Even so, the rules now say that you can’t drive in that empty right lane unless you are driving a bus.

Seattle police — who can’t be bothered to enforce rules against kids smoking pot in public — probably won’t come down too hard on people who stray into that bus lane. Especially if the driver makes a convincing case that it was an honest mistake and promises not to do it again.

But if the police catch a repeat offender on probation violating the sanctity of that empty bus lane, you can bet they’ll be writing a big ticket.

Even if you have a good excuse and it’s a silly rule, you can only push it so far. Just ask Microsoft.

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