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 []