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Opera Revives IE Complaint About Microsoft

Following the European Union's Court of First Instance decision in September completely upholding a 2004 European Commission ruling that Microsoft had abused its dominant market position, many observers felt it was just a matter of time before new antitrust complaints arose against the firm. They didn't have to wait long.

Thursday, Opera Software, the Oslo, Norway maker of the Opera browser, filed a complaint with the EC, accusing the software giant of monopolizing the browser market by continuing to bundle Internet Explorer (IE) with Windows.

"We're asking the EC; to untie IE from the Windows operating system and to make sure that IE follows internationally-recognized standards," Håkon Wium Lie, chief technology officer for Opera Software, told InternetNews.com.

Opera's complaint requests that the EC order Microsoft to either unbundle IE from Windows altogether or to include other browsers pre-installed on new systems.

Second, it asks the EC to require Microsoft to fully support Web standards, "instead of stifling them with its notorious 'Embrace, Extend and Extinguish' strategy," according to an Opera press statement.

IE does not completely pass common Internet standards tests, particularly in the areas of XHTML, Document Object Model, and Cascading Style Sheets support, Lie said. "Microsoft seems to have little interest in being interoperable with the rest of the world," he added.

Opera's complaint was supported by the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), a Microsoft critic, of which Opera Software is a member.

"Until Microsoft changes its abusive business practices to conform to the principles established when the U.S. and EU first addressed Microsoft abusive tying … Opera and other innovative browsers will not be able to compete on equal terms, and consumers will continue to be deprived of the benefits of competition-derived innovation and choices," Thomas Vinje, ECIS spokesman and legal counsel, said in a statement.

One key area of the EC's ruling upheld in September surrounded bundling of Microsoft's Windows Media Player (WMP). The EC found that Microsoft had illegally tied the music player to Windows, thus blocking competing players from gaining a spot on the desktop.

The higher court's ruling upheld a decision that forced Microsoft to offer editions of Windows in Europe that do not include its media player.

In its complaint, Opera argues that, in a manner similar to media players, its browser is still being frozen off of users' desktops by Microsoft's continued bundling of IE with Windows, a practice that got the company in trouble with U.S. antitrust regulators in the late 1990s.

Although IE still comes standard with Windows, concessions Microsoft has made, both nationally and internationally, enable competing browsers to be installed and used fairly transparently.

"It's important to note that computer users have complete freedom of choice to use and set as default any browser they wish, including Opera, and PC manufacturers can also preinstall any browser as the default on any Windows machine they sell," Microsoft spokesperson Jack Evans said in a statement e-mailed to InternetNews.com.

Indeed, Microsoft has lost some browser market share in recent years, in light of gains by competitors.

For instance, Web metrics firm OneStat.com surveys found that in June 2007, IE made up less than 76 percent of browsers in use in the U.S., compared with nearly 20 percent for Mozilla's Firefox, and nearly 4 percent for Apple's Safari. Opera held a meager 0.61 percent share.

By comparison, on a worldwide basis, OneStat found IE had nearly 85 percent, while Firefox had almost 13 percent and Safari had less than 2 percent. In the global comparison, Opera still came in at 0.61 percent. (Aggregate numbers for the EU were not available.)

Opera's complaint asks that competing browsers come pre-installed on Windows or that IE be unbundled from the operating system. At the heart of its argument was the European court's September ruling that affirmed Microsoft's requirement to sell editions of Windows in European markets without Windows Media Player.

By most accounts, those editions without WMP have sold poorly. However, to Opera and its supporters, it's the principle that's important.

"The European Court of First Instance confirmed in September that Microsoft has illegally tied Windows Media Player to Windows. We are simply asking the Commission to apply these same, clear principles to the Internet Explorer tie, a tie that has even more profound effects on consumers and innovation," Opera's statement said.

Opera referred to Microsoft's behavior in the middle and late 1990s when the software giant was trying to halt the advance of the then popular Netscape browser -- behavior that helped bring on Microsoft's antitrust troubles in the U.S. over whether it abused its monopoly in order to halt the advance of Netscape.

As the story goes, Netscape's Navigator, once the dominant player in the browser space, was pushed off the Web map by Microsoft after it launched the Internet Explorer browser in 1995 and bundled it with its Windows operating system.

As InternetNews.com reported in April 2000, a federal judge ruled that Microsoft had violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act by using its monopoly power to block rivals from marketing their own operating systems or emerging technologies that threatened Microsoft's market dominance. Lots of legal twists followed, but Microsoft eventually settled out of court in 2003 with America Online over the Netscape issue.

Now, at least one analyst wonders whether Opera's requested changes would significantly affect the field.

"Haven't we been down this road before?" asked Dwight Davis, vice president at researcher Ovum Summit. After all, the editions of Windows sans WMP have not sold well, and in the browser space Microsoft has been gradually losing market share. In addition, users are more tech savvy today.

"Today, I think a lot of users understand how trivial it is to install an alternative browser," Davis said. "I would be surprised if the EC were to force Microsoft to bundle in some competitors' offerings," he added.

Representatives for the EC were not immediately available for comment.