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DOJ ruling against Microsoft impacted browsers little

Joab Jackson | May 11, 2011
Perhaps it is ironic that the U.S. government antitrust oversight of Microsoft expires on the very same week that Google unveiled its Chromebook.

Perhaps it is ironic that the U.S. government antitrust oversight of Microsoft expires on the very same week that Google unveiled its Chromebook.

After all, the U.S. Department of Justice investigation was spawned by the suspicion that Microsoft was abusing its operating-system market domination to stunt browser competition -- which the company may have worried one day would dampen operating-system sales.

Today, the Chromebook embodies that fear, namely by relying on a Web browser that does away with the need for an underlying OS almost entirely.

Not surprisingly, Google officials have disparagingly contrasted the Chromebooks with Windows machines.

Even though the DOJ put restrictions on Microsoft about how Windows handled browsers, the consent decree seemed to have little effect on the development of the browser market, observers said. Instead, competitive pressure brought about the vibrant market that the DOJ sought, and the variety of browsers today, and what they can do, is far richer than it was in 1998.

"The monopolistic behavior conducted by Microsoft that led to the consent decree was bad for the Internet industry as a whole. It restricted the amount of innovation that could happen on the Web," said Mitchell Baker, chairperson of the Mozilla Foundation, which maintains the Firefox browser. "One of Mozilla's greatest successes was that it was able to invigorate competition and innovation back into the browser market."

"A lot has changed" in the world of browsers since the late 1990s, said Aaron Gustafson, group manager for the Web Standards Project, which measures how closely browsers adhere to Web standards.

Formally debuting in 1995, Netscape was the first widely used browser for the Web. But Microsoft worked hard to get its own browser in front of users, namely by bundling it with new copies of Windows. By the late 1990s, Microsoft enjoyed more than 90 percent of the browser market.

One of the reasons Microsoft was so eager to establish dominance in the browser market was that Netscape Communications saw the browser not just as a tool for users to look at Web pages, but as a platform for a wide range of enterprise applications, minimizing the need for operating systems such as Windows.

"The browser is not only useful for browsing the Web but also can serve as a platform for the development of all sorts of network-centric software applications," then-Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale explained to the DOJ in testimony in 1999. "This platform aspect of the browser ... allowed for the development of software applications that were directed more to the Internet than to the desktop, and thus had the potential to serve as a partial substitute for the Windows OS as a development platform."

 

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