2017-05-08

Nuanced Déjà Vu in Microsoft's Desktop Monopoly

When I was in late high school, which was in the early days of this blog, I had recently switched to Linux and was essentially an evangelist, singing its praises and loudly cursing the misdeeds of Microsoft with respect to the desktop market; many of my blog posts at that time were in that vein. In the nearly 8 years since then, I, my blog, Linux, Microsoft, and the consumer device market have all evolved and matured: I've become less evangelistic and more realistic about many things (or so I'd like to think), my blog has correspondingly shifted focus in various ways, Linux distributions have become less of a "wild west" than they were 8 years ago and have gained more support for popular things like proprietary video drivers and game platforms like Steam, Microsoft has been more open about supporting free and open-source software initiatives, and the consumer device market has shifted much more toward mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets which are very different from the desktops, laptops, and netbooks of 8 years ago (the latter of which doesn't really exist anymore as it once did). That said, I recently read a post on Slashdot (original article by Brian Fagioli of Betanews) about how Microsoft is locking the configuration settings for changing the default browser (Microsoft Edge) and search engine (Bing) choices in Windows 10 S, which is its version of Microsoft Windows 10 designed for lower-end hardware used in schools. For the sake of old times, I thought it might be nice to post about it, but hopefully with a bit more nuance than what I was capable of 8 years ago (and with the benefit of having seen the last 8 years of intervening technological development). Follow the jump to see more.

The fact that this locking is of the default browser choice makes it quite reminiscent to the circumstances of the antitrust lawsuit that the US government brought against Microsoft in 2001, but the circumstances now are a bit different. In particular, at that time, most web browsers were paid applications on CDs, which is why Microsoft's free bundling of its Internet Explorer web browser with its Windows OS was considered anticompetitive at that time. Plus, the dominance that followed allowed Microsoft to essentially require website authors to use certain proprietary standards to develop their websites, locking out other browsers. Then, Mozilla Firefox changed the game by distributing a free and open source extensible browser with a lot of cool features for no charge, predicated on making the Internet a more open and accessible place; it succeeded, and since then, the proliferation of free (of charge, and often free & open source too) web browsers has ensured the development of open standards for websites so that no single browser can maintain a stranglehold on the development of websites. Plus, people have their own favorites now, be they Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox (like me, a loyal user since version 0.9), Safari, Opera, or something else, and it is easy and widely known how to freely download such browsers, so Microsoft has much less leverage in terms of psychological market-share of its own browser.

Additionally, at that time, the desktop computer was pretty much the only computing platform available to ordinary consumers, so Microsoft's locking of the default browser was significant. Now, people more often use mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets, to browse the Internet, where they simply use site-specific apps or the default browser installed on the device to access certain websites. Given the greater growth in that sector, Microsoft locking its Edge browser as the default on desktops is less meaningful, especially as it has struggled in the mobile sector.

On that note, a lot of smartphones and tablets do a similar locking of default browser choices. Apple in particular is known for this with iOS, and Google builds its entire Chrome OS around its browser; while Android allows for changing the default browser from Google Chrome, I haven't done this because I don't use the browser much anyway (as I'm mostly using site-specific apps), and I don't personally know of many other Android users who do change the default browser. Yet, the competition between different mobile platforms ensures that such locking is not seen as anticompetitive today, versus the anticompetitive behavior of Microsoft 16 years ago.

Finally, it is worth recapitulating that Windows 10 S is the version of Windows 10 designed for educational environments with lower-end hardware. In the past, I might have been worried about how children might only be exposed to proprietary Microsoft products. Now, though, given that most kids either have or are aware of mobile devices that have nothing to do with Microsoft, I'm less worried about that issue.

Overall, I don't think Microsoft really has the leverage to ensure total dominance of its own web browser that it did 16 years ago. Too many ordinary consumers have moved onto other browsers and other platforms entirely. The default browser issue will only affect the rare cases of opening specific locally-hosted HTML and similar files, so for all other cases, users can put their preferred browser shortcut on the main screen or menu of Microsoft Windows 10. While it certainly pays to be vigilant about anticompetitive behavior and trends toward proprietary software, I don't see a need to hyperventilate like I might have 8 years ago.

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