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?
December 16, 2009; 12:25 PM ET
Categories: Computers , Policy and politics , Windows
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