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Google Joins EU Antitrust Investigation of Microsoft

After helping shutter the attempted Google-Yahoo! search deal last October, Microsoft is now discovering that when you tangle with the world's biggest search engine, turnabout is fair play. On Wednesday, Google became an approved third party in the European Commission's antitrust investigation of Microsoft's Windows bundle, which includes popular Internet browser Internet Explorer (IE).

According to the Commission in a statement of objections, Microsoft's handling of the browser makes it available on some 90% of the world's personal computers, thereby undermining competition, product innovation, and consumer choice. As of January 2009, IE commanded 67.55% of the total browser market share, according to Net Applications, which tracks web statistics.

In addition to the failed Google-Yahoo! deal, the two companies have butted heads before, according to The New York Times. In 2006, Google tried to convince the Justice Department and European regulators that IE's design unfairly threatened its search services. Then in 2007, Microsoft raised a similar claim that Google's acquisition of Internet ad service DoubleClick would stifle competition in the online advertisement market. Google has also lobbied against Microsoft's own numerous yet unsuccessful plays for Yahoo!.

As for Google's current motives for joining the investigation, Vice President of Product Management Sundar Pichai wrote on the company's public policy blog that "Google believes that the browser market is still largely uncompetitive, which holds back innovation for users. This is because Internet Explorer is tied to Microsoft's dominant computer operating system, giving it an unfair advantage over other browsers....Even greater competition will drive more innovation within browsers themselves--as well as in web design, enabling sites to load faster and offer new kinds of interactive tools and applications."

Pichai adds, "We believe that we can contribute to this debate. We learned a lot from launching our own Google Chrome browser [which had 1.12% market share in January] last year and are hoping that Google's perspective will be useful as the European Commission evaluates remedies to improve the user experience and offer consumers real choices. Of course creating a remedy that helps solve one problem without creating other unintended consequences isn't easy—but the more voices there are in the conversation, the greater the chances of success."

With Google now involved in the fray--as well as Mozilla, whose Firefox browser accounted for 21.53% of the market in January and Norwegian browser Opera, with 0.70% share--the pressure is mounting. Only Apple, whose Safari browser commands an 8.29% share, has remained neutral.

Microsoft, which has not commented on the Google announcement, has until March 12 to respond to the European Commission's allegations. The company also has the right to an oral hearing if it chooses. If Microsoft is not able to disprove the Commission's objections, however, it faces a significant fine and may be subject to third-party-approved "remedies," which are likely to include offering a range of competitor browsers in future Windows bundles.

-Amanda Richter


Feb 26, 2009