The market may open up the browser market long before the courts finally rule on the matter, with cracks already appearing in the dam that Microsoft erected to deter users from buying a PC with the Netscape browser present.
The dam is likely to burst if PC makers find they have sufficient clout over Microsoft, while Judge Jackson is considering the latest antitrust complaints by the federal and state governments. Microsoft's agreement to allow Gateway to promote its own Internet access service, gateway.com, on its PCs shows the software company is sensitive to the demands of first tier PC makers. From this week, Gateway is offering PCs that allow subscribers to its Internet access service to go immediately to a Gateway screen, so making it possible for users to choose their browser and Internet provider (see Newswire 27 May).
Microsoft said it allowed this relaxation because Gateway had its own Internet service and in fact, the concession is a minor one, since it only applies to US residents who use Gateway as a PC supplier and ISP.
Ted Waitt, Gateway's CEO, said: "We have gained some flexibility in our negotiations with Microsoft" but claimed it was "pure speculation" that Microsoft had relaxed its contract terms because of the looming legal cases. Nevertheless, there is little doubt in the industry that the oxygen of the litigation has caused these first cracks to appear in the dam.
Shortly after the Gateway announcement, NEC said it would allow buyers of its Versa notebooks with Windows 95 to choose their preferred browser from CD-Roms supplied. Craig Rittenhouse for NEC was keen to point out that the move was "pro-customer" rather than "anti-Microsoft".
IBM already offers both Microsoft's and Netscape's browsers, and HP offers a choice with its Kayak range. Compaq, HP and Packard Bell customise their screens - but with Microsoft's approval.
Although these first tier manufacturers have the muscle to renegotiate their contracts at this sensitive time for Microsoft, it appears less likely that second and third tier suppliers will win the freedom to modify their start-up screens in the immediate future.
There is a hidden agenda behind the desire of PC makers to regain control of the start-up screen. Before Microsoft gained this control through its contracts, Internet service providers used to pay the manufacturers to have their service icon displayed, effectively as an advertisement. Microsoft is now the recipient of these fees.
Microsoft argues that it wishes users to have a uniform 'Windows experience', regardless of the PC they buy - but to PC manufacturers, Microsoft was tying IE to Windows - "no IE, no Windows 95", Microsoft effectively told Compaq and others.
Operating system costs represent an ever growing proportion of the cost of a PC. In the early days, when Windows was described as a graphical user interface on top of MS-Dos, it accounted for around one per of PC cost, but it is now nearer 10 per cent, at a time when the price of competitive hardware and software is declining dramatically.
At the low price end of the PC market, any differentiation that does not increase prices is likely to appeal quickly, with user pull and OEM push combining to make the change accelerate quickly if it does get under way. Manufacturers are likely to be united in their desire to specify their PCs as they wish, without reference to Microsoft, since in this way they can carry out more innovative marketing and probably sell more PCs by offering choice rather than the previous vanilla-only offerings.
Microsoft spokesman Adam Sohn still maintains that if IE were removed from Windows 95 or 98, the operating system would break. He was anxious to point out that Microsoft had made no new concessions to Gateway or NEC, and characterised the move as manufacturers "exercising options". He said that the channel bar could be switched off, and that Netscape's browser could be configured as the default browser - an explanation at odds with previous statements and actions.
A close study of browser usage surveys in the US - such as a recent one by ZD Market Intelligence - shows that only 46 per cent of Windows 95 users prefer IE to Netscape Navigator and that IE has only achieved a 39 per cent market share on all operating systems, compared with Netscape's 54 per cent. Users, it seems, are more capable of making their own decisions about browsers than either Microsoft would wish to be the case, or the Justice Department apparently believes.
As PC users become more sophisticated and acquire replacement PCs, many have decided to have a choice of browsers. Downloading from the Internet, or loading Netscape's browser from a CD-Rom, is less of an obstacle for users as they become more sophisticated. Nor are choices likely to be confined to IE or Netscape - the Norwegian Opera browser (www.operasoftware.com) is enjoying considerable success by virtue of its speed and small footprint.
Just as every culture usually develops its counter-culture, Microsoft executives fear that if they give way over browser choice, this will lead to users wanting a choice of office suite.
Before long, the operating system monopoly in the Intel processor market could be assailed by a number of alternatives, from Unix derivatives such as Linux and SCO's Unix to new thin client products designed for particular markets.
If customers become more assertive in their desire for choice, the marketplace will erupt as vendors seek to offer, at last, what users would really like to have. The need for further legal action against Microsoft may well decline if open market forces are restored. User choice may become a mass movement in two or three years, resulting in innovative products reaching the market on merit, rather than as watered down versions submerged in Windows. And software prices would continue to decline.
If the dam made of Microsoft's monopoly products is breached, it is unlikely to be rebuilt. This could also be the situation that brings about the widespread adoption of the network computer, when political correctness in corporate decision making does not demand obeisance to the PC.
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