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Regulators close a case against Microsoft, start one against Intel

One of the older antitrust issues in computing looks to be over, and another may only be getting started: Today, Microsoft agreed to the European Commission's request that it give Windows users a clear, simple choice of Web browsers, while in the U.S. the Federal Trade Commission sued Intel, alleging that the chip maker has abused its market power to try to suppress competition.

The EC case concerns the same question that authorities here wrestled with over much of the late 1990s: Is Microsoft using its control of Windows to shut out competing browser developers? But the commission began this inquiry only two years ago after Opera Software filed a complaint.

Under the settlement, Microsoft will provide a "browser ballot" screen (PDF) to European Windows users through its automatic-update process by March (it should also available online at browserchoice.eu). This will feature the top five browsers -- Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome and Opera's own browser -- in random order, with seven other contenders available to users who scroll to the right. The user will then be able to click an "Install" button to switch to any one of these options.

In return for Microsoft committing to offer this ballot -- along with other interoperability pledges -- the commission agreed to drop its charges against the Redmond, Wash., company.

This move may seem a little late in the game, coming years after Firefox began chipping away at Microsoft's monopoly. But considering how many readers still seem unaware of their non-IE options, it will be interesting to see what sort of further market-share shifts result from this ballot interface.

Back in Washington, the FTC's complaint (PDF) alleges a variety of abusive actions by Intel. As the commission summarizes in a press release, the Santa Clara, Calif., company "carried out its anticompetitive campaign using threats and rewards aimed at the world's largest computer manufacturers ... to coerce them not to buy rival computer CPU chips." The FTC also says that Intel tweaked its compiler, a key software-development tool, "in a way that deliberately stunted the performance of competitors' CPU chips" and further charges that Intel has been trying to suppress the use of graphics-processing chips that could take over some of the work of its own processors.

Only a month ago, Intel's main rival, AMD, had accepted a $1.25 billion payment from Intel to end its own litigation. But the FTC -- along with European regulators, who earlier this year socked Intel with a $1.45 billion fine that Intel is still appealing -- doesn't seem to have been impressed by that private settlement.

Intel, as you might expect, says the FTC action is unsupported and rushed. (For my part, I should note that I've been pretty happy with the Intel chips I've seen in most new computers, in terms of how much less electricity they use and heat they put out compared with older models. But that doesn't mean other companies couldn't do better.)

What's your take on the Microsoft and Intel news? Would you like to see Windows -- or, for that matter, Mac OS X -- pop up a browser-ballot interface the first time you connected to the Internet? Do you feel you're getting a fair choice of processors when you shop for a new desktop or laptop? How much should any government do about either issue?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 16, 2009; 12:25 PM ET
Categories:  Computers , Policy and politics , Windows  
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Comments

Posted this /while/ you were doing the live web chat. Nice multi-tasking.

As to the lawsuits. Meh. Just meh. Don't think, long term, they will affect intel, msft, or us all that much.

p.s. Should get my Nook tomorrow. Since the e-mail didn't bounce I assume you're still robp at washpost dot com. If not, and if you're interested in the Nook, drop me a line at wiredog at gmail.

Posted by: wiredog | December 16, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

That's an interesting idea... Fair's fair after all. But not just Windows and Mac OS. Any OS distribution that bundles a browser should offer a choice of browsers which support that environment.

How that would play out for things like Chrome is beyond me.

Posted by: dactyl | December 16, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

One more Important Technology: CueCat.

Posted by: wiredog | December 16, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

I support 100% the regulatory actions of the European and American governments. Mob-style shakedowns of vendors that even think about going with someone else are the name of the game for Intel and Microsoft. It's all about protecting turf, not innovating.

Posted by: tryks | December 16, 2009 6:20 PM | Report abuse

Yes we all understand that Microsoft will provide PC users the ability to install 12 different web browsers -- the problem is, I'd put money on Internet Explorer working with fewer glitches than the other browsers using Windows 7 as the operating system.

We all know how that works, don't we?

Posted by: helloisanyoneoutthere | December 16, 2009 6:51 PM | Report abuse

"But considering how many readers still seem unaware of their non-IE options,"

I doubt that many people who are thus unaware would be readers of this column. The great majority of people are only marginally able to distinguish between hardware and software, between an application and operating system. Different versions of browser is as abstruse as the inner workings of their television or automobile.

Posted by: memew | December 16, 2009 10:21 PM | Report abuse

In general, I think today's governments are weak in addressing monopoly positions. Developing a monopoly is fine. Leveraging that monopoly to institute anti-competitive measures is not.

Think about how easy it is to install third-party software in a linux distribution like Ubuntu. You just start an application, look through a list, and select. The app stores for the iPhone and Androids work largely the same way. It should be just as easy to add applications to Windows, but it is not. And thanks to anti-competitive measures, it is nearly impossible to get a computer maker to supply PCs that do not have some version of Windows. (And I can't remember the last time AMD chips were a viable alternative to Intel.)

Regulators need to do their jobs.

Posted by: slar | December 16, 2009 10:47 PM | Report abuse

Rob- I want the government to do something about this -

INVENTORS - DO NOT TRUST INTEL

I invented a CPU cooler - 3 times better than best - better
than water. Intel have major CPU cooling problems - "Intel's microprocessors were generating so much heat that they were melting" (iht.com) - try to talk to them - they send my communications to my competitor & will not talk to me.

Winners of major 'Corporate Social Responsibility' award.

Huh!!!!

When did RICO get repealed?"

Be advised
1) I am prepared to kill to protect my IP (Intel HAVE NOT stolen it AFAIK - so you can't Sean Dix me) and
2) I am prepared to die to get TRUE patent reform.

IPROAG - The Intellectual Property Rightful Owners Action Group.

The One Dollar Patent.

Posted by: Not Edwin Armstrong II

Rob - happy to provide evidence of cooler performance to you.

Posted by: stuart21 | December 17, 2009 7:19 AM | Report abuse

Let us know how that alternate-browser thing works out for some of your EU colleagues when they try to run Microsoft Update.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | December 17, 2009 9:18 PM | Report abuse

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