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Can IE compete on a level playing field?

Starting March 1, Microsoft will have to learn to compete in the browser market again due to an EU antitrust agreement. This should be good for consumers, but also for Microsoft and its competitors.

Mozilla may have problems with its Firefox browser, but they pale in comparison to the specter now haunting Microsoft's Internet Explorer:

A level playing field.

For years, Microsoft has been sheltered from the brunt of browser competition by bundling IE with Windows. As Mozilla executive Mitchell Baker once told me:

[M]ost 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.

That's about to change, and it likely won't be a positive change for Microsoft.

Starting March 1, Microsoft will be forced, under the terms of a European Commission antitrust agreement, to present both existing and new Windows users with a browser ballot box, as shown below.


Even in a world where Microsoft could cozily tie IE to Windows, the company managed to hemorrhage 5 percent market share each year to Firefox and now Chrome, which have grabbed 24.43 percent and 5.22 percent market share, respectively, according to Net Applications.

This only promises to get worse now that rival browsers have a fair shot.

Fortunately, it also promises to goad Microsoft into competing and innovating more vigorously in the browser market, something that it has increasingly done of late thanks to Firefox nipping at its heels. This will be good for Microsoft, but it also promises to be good for Mozilla, Google, and Apple, as they, too, will be spurred to further improve their browsers.

The biggest winner of all? Consumers.

I suspect that in the short term Firefox will benefit most, as it has the biggest brand loyalty. Google Chrome has been giving Firefox serious competition, but it's still mostly the Silicon Valley and general technology crowd that is switching to Chrome. The general public hasn't heard of Chrome, but may actually have heard about Firefox.

Whatever the outcome, the browser market is open again, and that's good for everyone: competitors and consumers alike.