Mozilla: Sometimes govt. is answer to Microsoft

The software giant unfairly prejudices consumer behavior in the browser market, argues Mozilla Chairman Mitchell Baker, making government action necessary.

Mozilla Foundation Chairman Mitchell Baker
Mozilla Foundation Chairman Mitchell Baker Mozilla

Mozilla Foundation's Mitchell Baker describes Firefox, the open-source Web browser, as "an anomaly."

While most Microsoft competitors lay down and die when Microsoft claims 90 percent or more of a market, Mozilla has fought back to earn more than 20 percent of the browser market .

Despite this success, Baker believes that government, and in the European Commission in particular, has a role to play in further leveling the playing field. As she notes in a recent blog post, government entities would perhaps have less relevance but for the antitrust activity that resulted in Microsoft's dominant market share in the first place:

Microsoft did not obtain its (Internet Explorer) hegemony solely through competition on the merits of IE. A number of illegal activities were also involved in creating IE's market dominance...The idea that Microsoft is an innocent victim (of European Commission intervention) is deeply flawed.

I interviewed Baker at length on this topic on Friday, and though I have something of a knee-jerk negative reaction to government involvement in markets and have argued against Mozilla's need for government bailouts , one thing she said particularly resonated with me. When I asked the most damaging thing Microsoft's activities had done to the browser market, Baker turned to psychology:

The Internet became mixed in people's minds with Microsoft. Many people conflated Windows with "the Web." Our first great challenge was to convince people that they could improve their life by making a choice in their browser. To this day, most people think of "the Internet" as the blue "E" (IE's icon).

It's always there on the desktop. The muscle memory of the blue E has been a giant problem for us and for competition.

In Silicon Valley, this might seem like an odd argument--"surely, everyone knows that IE is just a browser, not the Web, and that Windows isn't a browser or the Web!"--but outside the borders of highways 280 and 101, the argument resonates. Deeply.

Most people, as Baker continued, fear their computers or, at best, consider them somewhat foreign and difficult to understand. They just want them to work and aren't in the habit of using any software other than what comes preinstalled:

Just having things work when they turn on the computer gives people reassurance. Telling them to try something else, and thereby risk breaking this system, was a difficult proposition.

It's actually worse than this. Not only did Mozilla have to convince would-be Firefox adopters once; it has to do it over and over, as Baker suggests:

Every time someone buys a new machine, they have to make a decision to go out and download/install Firefox, even if they've already made that decision. There is persistent resistance to Firefox. We have 220 million users, and a lot of those users have had to choose Firefox more than once. That's an issue.

Again, had Microsoft achieved this coup with fair dealings, Mozilla might grumble but would ultimately learn to compete on Microsoft's terms, as it has for years.

But IE's "brainwashing" of the market didn't come through fair means, so Mozilla is getting involved in the European Commission's suit against Microsoft . Baker and her team have been granted special status that enables them to access Commission documents and offer their perspective on the proceedings.

Mozilla isn't looking for a handout. It's looking for a level playing field. It has managed to scratch out 20 percent of the browser market on Microsoft's terms. Imagine what it could do with a fair and truly competitive market.


Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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