If someone fights unfairly and you nevertheless win, it doesn't mean they don't deserve condemnation

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I have been a fan of Techdirt for a few years now but as Masnick becomes more and more rabidly pro-“Free” Market Capitalism,  I start to reconsider. I keep seeing articles which seem critical of one action only because it opposes the free market, not because of any utilitarian argument.

The latest post commenting on the recent siding of Mozilla with the EU anti-trust action against Microsoft is the latest such example of this trend. Within, the author complains that such a move is obviously wrong as well as misguided as obviously there isn’t a monopoly since Firefox has managed to gain market share. In the same breath however, he also mentions that the original instigator, Opera is an “also-ran”.

Basically what Masnick is saying is that if a complaint is made by someone who cannot gain any market share, it’s because they are not good enough. But if it’s made by someone who managed to gain a foothold, it’s disingenuous. Whatever happens, there can’t be a monopoly issue brought up at all.

Anyone can easily see the fallacious reasoning here. The truth of course is that Microsoft is not simply abusing its market position to stiffle innovation on the browser space1 but it has been doing so aggressively and for a very long and well documented time.

Firefox managed to achieve market acceptance despite Microsoft’s monopoly on the space. When the new browser came out, it didn’t even register on the radar until the first major grass root advertising and word-of-mouth campaigns started. Even though it was vastly superior to any of MS’ offerings, its growth was slow and tortured, owning mostly to the fact that most webpages were “optimized” for IE and flat-out refused to work with Mozilla based browsers.

Not only that but the fact that MS bundled IE with their OS2 made any viable alternative difficult to discover. Why would most normal users even consider looking for an alternative browser which most of the time couldn’t access their banking portals? Many times. even when you put an alternative browser on one’s desktop and advised them to use it, they wouldn’t because it was not what they were used to. This is how deep the IE conditioning had gone.

There is no more striking example than what Techdirt dismisses quickly: Opera. Almost everyone will tell you that for a long time before even Firefox got conceived, Opera was the undeniable leader in features, standards-implementation, speed and basically all there was in a browser. And yet, it didn’t even make a dent in the market share of MS. Techdirt, the stalwart defender of innovation for some reason does not even wonder why Opera didn’t make it but rather assumes that it must have been because they were not good enough or something. In other words the classic  selective view of reality that annoys me so much about Free Marketeers.

Of course Firefox managed to compete, in the same way that GNU/Linux managed to compete, by being adopted immidiately by the Free Software movement who then went had to fight uphill for every percentile of market share. The reason they achieved it is because of their distributed nature, philosophical backing and knowledge of technology which allowed them to be unaffected or quickly overcome many of the hurdles in their way. Does that mean that the competition was fair? Not at all. It was stacked against them on every turn. But they persevered.

Opera unfortunately had neither a huge community behind them, nor the budget required to raise awareness of its existence which is why then, and still now, it still can’t get market share, even though it is still considered by many as one of the better browsers. However, were MS Windows to come bundled with Opera and IE and ask the user which one they wanted to use, then things would have been much much different. Most people who didn’t know either, would give a try to each and stick with Opera overwhelmingly.

The author also brings as examples of competition Google’s Chrome and Safari, both of which don’t sustain his argument in the slightest. The only reason either of those managed to achieve any market share is not because of any innovation but because of the popularity of their respective distributors. Apple has a well known fanatic fanbase and a considerable market share in the OS, for which they also bundled their own product. Google did a smart marketing campaign but overall Chrome, even though an inferior product from all others, gained share because it’s suggested in the front page of the most popular search engine.

And with all this, IE still stands at ~70% even though it’s the worse of them all and Microsoft has done practically no marketing whatsoever about it and only a half-arsed effort to improve their own offering (mainly by copying popular features). If that does not give you a very clear hint that something is amiss, then I do not know what will. Everyone must strive infinitely more to achieve even a single market share percentile while MS without doing anything can still enjoy a monopolistic percentage.

So yes, Firefox has managed to crack MS iron grip on the browser but that is not because a monopoly “obviously” doesn’t exist but rather despite this very clear, for all but the Free marketeers, monopoly. Just because they have managed to a degree to overcome the mountain of challenges posed by the anti-competitive business practices of MS does not mean that these practices should be left unpunished.

If you play a game and you opponent is obviously cheating but you nevertheless manage to defeat him by playing fair, does it mean that they do not deserve condemnation and punishment? Of course they do. You do not punish them only when you lose, you do it regardless – not out of spite or revenge – but as a lesson and a warning for the future. Leaving them unpunished simply gives the incentive to cheat the next time as well.

But the view of Techdirt is more inane than that. When you play with a cheater and you lose, you’re just a sore loser. If you win, then they couldn’t possibly have been cheating could they?

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  1. mainly because it was in their best interest to have apps based on the OS or an OS-locked browser instead of a multiplatform browser []
  2. After they hastily made it an “integral part” of the OS during the Netscape anti-trust case, in order to claim that they couldn’t remove it []

19 thoughts on “If someone fights unfairly and you nevertheless win, it doesn't mean they don't deserve condemnation

  1. I don't want to use Safari on my iphone. Do I have a choice there? can I change it? Nope! what does the EU say about that?

  2. Sorry about the tabs. Here is a repost.

    I am writing from South Africa where we have a fairly busy website and monitor browser usage.
    Here are changes during last 3 years.

    Percentage Browser Usage all visitors

    MONTH IE FX OPRA SAFRI OTHER
    DEC 2008 45 29 5 6 15
    DEC 2007 52 29 3 2 14
    DEC 2006 67 26 3 1 3

    There has been a significant move away from IE over past 2 years. YAHOO shows big gains in the OTHER category.

    My personal preference is the little known K-Melion browser.

    1. While I probably dislike copyrights more than you do, this kind of argument is not going to convince anyone. Even some Free Marketeers consider copyrights good.

  3. I'm a strong supporter of free enterprise, but I'm with you on this issue. It does the cause of "free enterprise" no good whatsoever to pretend not to see a monopoly. Some supporters of "free enterpise" get religiously anti-government. They argue that the government will always mess something up and thus we don't want to give government power to break a monopoly, I would say look at how badly MS has bungled computer tech. We afford to have government attempt to open up the software markets some. Of course, we do want to be sure that the government doesn't go far against Microsoft–just enough to give an opening to the competition. Let Microsoft fail from its bad taste, and not by government decree.

  4. You get it all wrong. Any modern OS is bound to have an integrated browser and the question of whether a 3rd party can compete with the platform browser is a matter of features and innovation on the part of the browser provider. Forcing Microsoft to ship without a browser is plain dumb. It will not solve anything but will just harm Microsoft's users.

    Microsoft monopolistic legacy does place them in a different place but the real problem everyone feels but no one talks about is not at all related the EU 'unbundling' request. Opera is doing itself harm by requesting this – and I will explain shortly.

    I was a long time Firefox user (since its first betas) but nowadays I use Chrome because it is fast, effective, _innovative_ and memory friendly. Sure I miss some plugins but then apparently not enough and when I really need something (like Firebug) I can stil fire up Firefox.

    When I set up a computer for my parents, I set them up with Ubuntu. The only real problem they had is that they could not access many sites (banks, some government web sites and some medical relate web sites) because these sites used some IE hooks (like active X controls, VB script or other non-standard features). How are my parents going to benefit Microsoft unbundling IE in Windows 7? They would not and neither are other Linux users, OSX users, iPhone users or others.

    If Opera had some sense, they would have asked EU not for unbundling of IE from Windows (which makes no sense other than punish the users who get such a verion). Instead, they should have asked the EU to force Microsoft to ship IE where all the non-standard features are disabled. Then users can go to the Microsoft Windows Update site to manually download the 'Internet Explorer Obsolete Sites Support' so they can again work with such sites. Organizations can get around this with their centralized installation and that's ok, however, PC vendors should not be allowed to pre-install this option.

    To drive the point even a little bit further it would also be worthwhile to require Microsoft to either offer Silverlight on all major platforms (or else make the code freely available for porting to other platforms) to prevent them from breaking the web again.

    This approach would have many benefits including:
    1. Microsoft would now be in the same position as other browsers with respect to the 'broken web' they created. Users will have to go and download support for that part of the web.
    2. Web site owners, many of which are ignorant of the 'broken web' they develop the sites to will now be forced to either help their visitors with installing that IEOSS package or simply fix their web site so it would use standards.
    3. Mobile web access (including from Windows Mobile) will quickly get better as the mobile browser suffer even more from the broken web.

    Mozilla did the right thing by distancing themselves from the misguided request to unbundle IE.

    You asked "Why would most normal users even consider looking for an alternative browser". That is indeed a good question to which the obvious answer is that most normal users will always prefer to use the browser built into their OS. Only when a new browser comes about with very significant capabilities that really matter to the user, would they consider using such a browser. This reminds me of a long time ago when TCPIP was not part of Windows (upto Windows 3.1). During that time, everyone used pricey commercial TCPIP stacks (like NetManage or WRQ among others) or the free one Trumpet. When Microsoft announced they are shipping their own stack, everyone got wild – they are killing an entire industry. Nowadays it is rather clear that an OS must provide its own TCPIP.

    Last thing, I also disgree with you that "Microsoft is simply abusing its market position to stiffle innovation on the browser space" – there are great innovations happening there all the time. Microsoft is using its legacy of broken web to the disadvantage of competing OSes and that has to stop.

    Regards,

    Dror Harari

    1. I cannot agree with most of what you say. First of all I do not propose shipping windows without a browser but possibly shipping them with a an alternative as well.

      Competing with Microsoft is very obviously not a matter of features and innovation or Opera and Firefox would have already overcome the market share of IE which severely lags behind in everything, from speed to features.

    2. How are my parents going to benefit Microsoft unbundling IE in Windows 7? They would not and neither are other Linux users, OSX users, iPhone users or others.

      They would benefit once the site admins knew that IE-related web design would not work in most people and instead start developing their sites according to standards. That way everyone benefits.

      1. Most people use XP or older Windows and this will continue for long time. If EU forced MS not to unbundle or ship other browsers but instead to ship IE8 only with 'standard' features, forcing users to manually fetch the 'obsolete websites toolkit' then there's a chance. Come on, don't disagree just for the sake of it…

        1. i don't disagree just for the sake of it, but I honestly don't see why your suggestion has any more merit that unbundling or multiple browsers

        2. i don't disagree just for the sake of it, but I honestly don't see why your suggestion has any more merit that unbundling or multiple browsers

    3. Last thing, I also disgree with you that "Microsoft is simply abusing its market position to stiffle innovation on the browser space" – there are great innovations happening there all the time.

      Mostly the opposite is true.

  5. […]Organizations can get around this with their centralized installation and that's ok, however, PC vendors should not be allowed to pre-install this option.

    The previous suggestion makes no sense. What's the difference of shipping with an alternative browser and shipping with the IE only functions disabled? I would much prefer they ship with Firefox instead. Organizations as always can install IE if they need it.

    1. It makes sense my friend. Because Microsoft is a software company and they should be able to design a complete and integrated user experience like others do. Microsoft also has to pay for past/present sins in ways others need not. The idea is that the real Microsoft lock-in that comes from the 'broken web' is the core problem. With my proposal, it costs Microsoft more in image and user distraction to maintain the broken web (as well as for web site owners).

      1. Adding a browser from the developer itself is not a necessity any more than adding an office suite, a photo editing program or whatever else. The reason why MS did anything more than an OS in the first place is because they want to grab the market share of these applications and they did that by buying a below-standard implementation and then destroying the competition through their monopoly.

        If MS wants to have a browser offering to give to people that is fine. The problem is that it forces that browser offering to everyone regardless of if they asked for it or not. Dell cannot offer a windows PC just with Firefox because IE cannot be removed. HP cannot offer a laptop only with Opera because IE cannot be removed.

        The whole broken-web core problem is in direct relation to this fact. That all Web developers knew that IE would be available everywhere and only IE would be able to use ActiveX and other propriertary tech. Here's another solution. Force MS to unbundle the IE from the OS in the sense that IE can be uninstalled without breaking the rest of the system. Then publishers can deliver a PC without IE at all which will have the same exact effect as your suggestion.

  6. I have read that post many years ago, indeed MS has many past sins. However, this article is very much single sided. MS have their share of innovation in the way they manage to package things for easy consumption and the proof is in their numbers (eat s**t and drink coke, 10 trillion files can't be wrong).

    Still my disagreement with what you wrote was that I think MS is not trying to stifle innovation in the browser space (where there is enough innovation and MS is largely far behind and does not have a chance) but instead is trying to maintain its OS stronghold by making other OSes less attractive for the normal person because the browser there cannot show many site that person wants.

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