Opera's misguided antitrust charges against Microsoft

Reliving the last decade, the Norwegian browser make asks a court to order that Microsoft "unbundle" Internet Explorer from its operating system and comply with Web standards.

Published December 13, 2007 5:37PM (EST)

I seldom have critical words for Opera, the Norwegian software company whose innovative, eponymous Web browser has long won raves from smart geeks. Opera runs with more zip than Firefox and Internet Explorer and has always been ahead of its rivals in adding snappy features.

And, of course, the company has done it all in the face of the stiffest competition around -- Microsoft's successful effort to extend its operating system monopoly into a browser monopoly.

And yet Opera's latest innovation -- an antitrust charge -- leaves me skeptical. On Wednesday the company filed a complaint to the European Commission alleging that Microsoft is violating European laws by packaging Internet Explorer into Windows and by refusing to closely follow all Web standards.

If the case sounds familiar, that's because the complaint is very similar to the charge the U.S. Justice Department brought against Microsoft in the late 1990s, after Microsoft hit on bundling IE into Windows as the perfect way to defeat Netscape's dominance in the Web browser market.

The DOJ's move, then, seemed perfectly reasonable; Microsoft's monopoly was key to its victory in the browser war.

But in the years since, Microsoft has been slowed by strong competition in all of its markets: Google is eating its lunch on the Internet, Apple is beating it in entertainment, and Firefox has proven that the company's browser is vulnerable to innovative competition.

Is Microsoft still a monopoly? Sure it is. Its operating system accounts for more than 90 percent of computer users, and such market share brings enormous power to control the tech industry.

But an OS monopoly is not nearly as important as it once was. Microsoft has repeatedly failed to translate its operating system base into meaningful dominance in other markets. Will its operating system rule the world on mobile phones? Will its productivity applications -- Office -- manage against free Web alternatives (Google Documents and the rest)?

Nobody knows, but its OS monopoly doesn't guarantee its success -- and in order to beat it, its rivals no longer need court help. Many can win -- and are winning -- on their smarts alone.

Indeed, as Mary Jo Foley, a sharp-eyed analyst of Microsoft's actions, points out, legal enforcement of Microsoft's actions isn't necessarily good for the Web. Opera wants Microsoft to build technical Web standards into its browser -- in other words, it wants a court to determine "which versions of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), XHTML, Document Object Model (DOM)" and other technologies Microsoft should follow.

But members of "various standards bodies can't even agree among themselves which version of these standards is the best," Foley notes. "How are judges supposed to wade through the browser-standards confusion in a good/fair way?" More important, do we really want judges making those decisions?

When Microsoft was ascendant, maybe judges were tech rivals' only recourse against its illegal actions. Now, as conservatives like to say, the market can decide.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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