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Opera Files Antitrust Complaint Against Microsoft with EU Commission - Updated
Thursday, December 13 2007 @ 11:07 AM EST

It's about browsers. It's about unbundling Internet Exporer. And it's about web standards.

First, here's the announcement from Opera that they have filed an antitrust complaint with the EU Commission asking for the following two remedies:

First, it requests the Commission to obligate Microsoft to unbundle Internet Explorer from Windows and/or carry alternative browsers pre-installed on the desktop. Second, it asks the European Commission to require Microsoft to follow fundamental and open Web standards accepted by the Web-authoring communities. The complaint calls on Microsoft to adhere to its own public pronouncements to support these standards, instead of stifling them with its notorious "Embrace, Extend and Extinguish" strategy. Microsoft's unilateral control over standards in some markets creates a de facto standard that is more costly to support, harder to maintain, and technologically inferior and that can even expose users to security risks.

Amen. I hope ISO is paying attention. Because this is about standards, there is already a statement from the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS) in support of Opera's complaint.

Here's what ECIS says, in part:

"By tying its Internet Explorer product to its monopoly Windows operating system and refusing to faithfully implement industry accepted open standards. Microsoft deprives consumers of a real choice in internet browsers. Browsers are the gateway to the Internet. Microsoft seeks to control this gateway," says Thomas Vinje, ECIS Spokesman and Legal Counsel....

The Opera complaint also targets Microsoft's corruption of web standards, referring to a practice where Microsoft either fails to implement industry accepted open standards or implements them in a manner that is not faithful to the standard by adding undisclosed proprietary extensions. These practices when undertaken by a dominant company like Microsoft can eliminate competition which amounts to unlawful exclusionary behaviour infringing Article 82 of the EC Treaty. The complaint asks the Commission to require Microsoft to support open standards in Internet Explorer so that web developers can readily create web content and applications which are accessible consistently on all open standard compliant browsers. Today, Microsoft imposes its de facto, proprietary implementation on the developer community and consumers.

We'll see how the EU Commission views it in due time, but I hope ISO is able to extrapolate. That is precisely how I would describe what Microsoft is doing with MSOOXML, Microsoft's very own proprietary de facto standard which it wishes to impose despite there already being an accepted ISO standard for document formats, ODF, with which Microsoft's is not fully interoperable. Ecma allows MSOOXML to have undisclosed proprietary extensions. In fact, any number of comments were presented by countries concerned about those very issues. Hopefully, their comments will now no longer be viewed as "out of order" at the February ballot resolution meeting. I'd say they just entered the main tent. Surely, no "standard" should be approved that may be in violation of the EU antitrust law.

Here's a statement from Microsoft reported by Reuters:

A Microsoft spokesman said Internet Explorer had been part of Windows for more than 10 years and supported many Web standards.

"We will of course cooperate with any inquiries into these issues, but we believe the inclusion of the browser into the operating system benefits consumers, and that consumers and PC manufacturers already are free to choose any browsers they wish," the spokesman said.

Supporting many web standards isn't the same as supporting them all, as you can discern from this Groklaw article on Microsoft and standards. IDG's James Niccolai explains why web standards matter:

The issue of standards is seen as important because if all Web browsers do not use the same standards, Web site developers are likely to design their Web sites to work with the most widely-used browser, which is Internet Explorer. That gives people a disincentive to use other browsers.

If you use any browser but Microsoft's you already know all about the problems you encounter.

Nor is this an Opera theoretical. Remember this story from 2001, where Opera was allegedly directly targetted by Microsoft, locked out of Microsoft's MSN portal? Then again in 2003? After you read all that, next read these boldly inaccurate excuses Microsoft first tried to peddle about HTML standards and why Opera didn't work. Well, now the chickens have come home to roost.

For further hilarity, read Microsoft's own description of HTML character sets and how IE renders them in its own special way:

HTML Character Sets

Character sets determine how the bytes that represent the text of your HTML document are translated to readable characters. Microsoft Internet Explorer interprets the bytes in your document according to the applied character set translations. It interprets numeric or hex character references ("〹" or "ሴ") as ISO10646 code points, consistent with the Unicode Standard, version 2.0, and independent of the chosen character set. Named entities ("&") are displayed independently of the chosen character set as well. The display of an arbitrary numeric character reference requires the existence of a font that is able to display that particular character on the user's system. Accordingly, the content in the first column of the following tables may not render as expected on all systems.

People actually have to write programs to deal with Microsoft's version of HTML, so that web pages don't break and folks who use other browsers than IE can access successfully. Here's one for example, the demoroniser, so named because it will "Correct Moronic Microsoft HTML":

This page describes, in Unix manual page style, a Perl program available for downloading from this site which corrects numerous errors and incompatibilities in HTML generated by, or edited with, Microsoft applications. The demoroniser keeps you from looking dumber than a bag of dirt when your Web page is viewed by a user on a non-Microsoft platform.

To show you a bit of what the problems are and how some try to cope, here's a screenshot of one of the choices you have in the browser for the Mac called iCab:

One workaround iCab gives you is that it lets you "pretend" to be a different browser, which sometimes tricks a web page into rendering correctly for you even if you are using an alternative to IE. As you can see, you can tell web pages that you are using Internet Explorer on Windows even if you are using iCab on a Mac:

This is exactly what no one would have to go through if everyone used open standards. And no, it doesn't always work.

Update: Reaction from the EU Commission, as reported by EurActiv:

"It is early to make any intelligent comment on this case. We have seen the complaint and we are going to study it carefully", Jonathan Todd, spokesperson for Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes, said yesterday during the daily Commission press briefing.

And Todd Bishop of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, as often is the case, has the most interesting details:

Although this is Opera's first antitrust challenge to Microsoft, the Norwegian company's board chairman, Bill Raduchel, has experience in such matters. He was Sun Microsystems' chief strategy officer when it was embroiled in its own antitrust battles with Microsoft.

In the 1999 book, "High Noon," about Sun Microsystems, Raduchel was quoted likening Bill Gates and Microsoft to John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Both had the sense that "they have a God-given right to this power and it's for the good of the world," the book quotes Raduchel as saying, calling it important for Sun to stand up against that.

On his blog, Bishop has collected reactions, including this further reaction from Jonathan Todd and a link to the video, if you wish to watch the press briefing (click on time stamp 18:07:51 in the EC Press Briefing section, where you see Opera mentioned):

"I can confirm that we have received a complaint from Opera. We are going to study this complaint carefully, and particularly in light of the case law established by the Court of First Instance in its ruling of the 17th of September this year."


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