The head of the Mozilla Foundation, the open source group responsible for the Firefox browser, offered the organization’s help to the European Commission (EC) on Friday in its latest antitrust case against Microsoft.
Reportedly, that outstretched hand has been accepted. If it seems like a familiar situation, it is.
EC regulators informed Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) last month that a probe of its business behaviors found the Redmond giant has illegally tied the Internet Explorer (IE) browser to Windows since 1996.
Mitchell Baker, Mozilla’s chairperson, offered the organization’s expertise in a blog post. “I’ve been involved in building and shipping Web browsers continuously since before Microsoft started developing IE, and the damage Microsoft has done to competition, innovation, and the pace of the Web development itself is both glaring and ongoing,” Baker’s post says.
The EC – the European Union’s (EU) executive branch – has accepted Baker’s offer to participate as an interested third party, according to a report by the IDG News Service. A U.S.-based spokesperson for the EC could not verify that statement by publication time.
That Mozilla would decide to get involved shouldn’t surprise anyone, according to one long-time Microsoft watcher.
“It’s a lot like history repeating itself,” Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, told InternetNews.com. He noted that pioneering browser maker Netscape supported the U.S. Department of Justice antitrust case against Microsoft, and it makes sense from a competitive standpoint.
“The stakes are really high,” Bajarin said, because of the browser’s increasing role as the “user interface for the Internet. The browser will move to more of an applications gateway or platform for the Internet,” he added.
At the same time, Bajarin understands why Microsoft needs to continue to push IE, even as it may be losing the Windows business over time – it has to retain its market share if it is going to survive.
By the numbers
While she is proud of the impact that Firefox has had worldwide, though, Baker too sees Microsoft as a continuing threat.
“[A] significant part of the European Union citizens have opted to use Firefox. This does not mean Microsoft’s activities haven’t done significant damage, or aren’t still benefiting Microsoft in ways that reduce competition, choice and innovation,” Baker’s post says.
In fact, Firefox is doing quite well against IE. The latest worldwide browser share statistics from Net Applications show Microsoft’s share has slid a half a point to 67.6 percent in the past month. In terms of overall share, IE is followed by Firefox with 31.5 percent and Safari at 8.3 percent. Opera, by Net Applications’ reckoning, gets 0.7 percent.
Meanwhile, the At Internet Institute, a European organization, found that IE had a 65 percent usage rate in Europe in March 2008, down from 67.5 percent in October 2007. Firefox, by comparison, had a 28.8 percent share March 2008, up 0.8 points from January 2008.
In the European survey Opera finished in third place but significantly behind the others. Opera held 3.3 percent share in March 2008, a rise of 0.2 points in the previous six months.
Microsoft’s current problems with the EC’s competition directorate began in February 2008, when Norwegian browser maker Opera Software filed a formal complaint with the EC regarding IE bundled with Windows.
That led to the EC’s actions last month when it notified Microsoft that it found the company engaged in anticompetitive practices in bundling IE going back to at least 1996. Microsoft has said repeatedly that it will cooperate with the EC’s investigations.
When queried whether the company had a response to Baker’s post, a Microsoft spokesperson provided the same statement it released last month when it received the EC’s statement of objections.
However, Microsoft warned investors in its quarterly 10-Q federal securities filing that it and its PC maker partners may be required to ship third-party browsers, including possibly Opera, Firefox, and Apple’s Safari, on the same PCs with IE.
Once Microsoft’s legal department received notice – a so-called “Statement of Objections” – from the EC on January 15, it had 60 days to respond, either in text or an oral hearing, or both. Additionally, the EC is likely to hit Microsoft with yet another huge fine.
The company is still in appeals over its most recent contretemps with the EC’s Competition Commissioner, for dragging its heels in providing technical documentation to competitors in the workgroup server market within the EU. It was socked with the roughly $1.35 billion fine last spring.
Previously, Microsoft also paid out nearly another billion dollars in fines in an attempt to settle the same earlier case after it lost on appeal to the second-highest court in the EU on September 17, 2007.