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Why Mozilla could beat IE in a European ground war

The European Union may not like Microsoft's "no browser" solution to its antitrust complaint, but this is an opportunity for Mozilla to win through superior community.

Damned if you do. Damned if you don't.

That's the message coming out of the European Commission as it grumbles about Microsoft's decision to strip Internet Explorer from OEM and retail versions of Windows 7 in Europe, as CNET reports.

The EU wants Microsoft to bundle a range of competing browsers with Windows 7. Microsoft, apparently in an act of defiance, said "Let them eat cake!" and is offering no browser at all.

Before you join the EU's protest, however, consider that this could well be Mozilla's best chance to increase its 31.1 percent market share in Europe.

Microsoft's Dave Heiner indicates that it will "offer (IE) separately and on an easy-to-install basis to both computer manufacturers and users." For such people, Firefox will be as hard (or easy) to get as before.

But what about those left without a browser? As Mike Shaver, Mozilla's vice president of engineering, articulated to me, most people download Firefox...using IE, which means leaving them browser-less (even without IE) is tantamount to cutting off their access to Firefox.

I disagree.

Mozilla has done a masterful job of marketing itself. From Asa Dotzler's early Spread Firefox campaign to its campus representatives, Mozilla rightly earns kudos from Advertising Age:

Mozilla competes against Microsoft, Apple and Google -- arguably the biggest and most valuable brands in the world -- and it succeeds with no traditional advertising (or big budgets) to speak of.

How? It's the community, stupid. In a ground war--that is, in a war of foot soldiers and hand-to-hand combat--I think Mozilla would beat IE. When your neighbor in Colmar, France, complains about her lack of Internet access on her new PC, are you going to install Firefox or IE for her? I'm guessing that Mozilla's army of enthusiastic community volunteers would be over in seconds with a Firefox-laden USB stick.

In fact, I can see the Firefox community taking up residence outside retail computer shops, offering to install Firefox. I can see the same community figuring out clever ways to add Firefox installation to other programs, giving Mozilla the same inside track on installations that Microsoft presumably will have.

Necessity is the mother of all invention, and it may well prod Mozilla's community to get deeply engaged in proselytizing and distributing Firefox in ways far beyond what it has hitherto done.

Sure, Microsoft's tactics (providing easy FTP access, etc.) will give it a healthy handicap in the competition, but community, not government, could make this one of Mozilla's single-best opportunities to leapfrog IE in Europe.

For those that like the idea of government and community helping Mozilla, just remember, as these Wall Street Journal readers do, that the hand that feeds today can quickly become the hand that takes tomorrow. What happens when Firefox gets too big for the EU's comfort? Will it coddle Opera into a competitive position next?

Even so, Mozilla's Shaver suggests a valid concern, noting that "if it takes a non-profit with a global community to overcome the (browser market's) barriers,...the market is fundamentally non-competitive." He may be right.

But that's not the question for me because I think government involvement here can end up hurting the market as much as it helps it. The question is whether Mozilla could win this war through superior marshaling of community ground forces. I think it could. Do you?

Update @ 12:45 PT: Mozilla CEO John Lilly offered this statement on Microsoft's actions in Europe:

It's impossible to evaluate what this means unless and until Microsoft describes -- completely and with specificity -- all the incentives and disincentives applicable to Windows OEMs. Without this it's impossible to tell if Microsoft is giving something with one hand and taking it away with the other, and more to the point, it's impossible to tell whether this does anything more than change the technical installation process of the OEMs and make life more difficult for people upgrading to Windows 7.

It's a good point. Microsoft's decision to remove the browser completely could well be a sneaky way to try to undermine the European Commission's case, and may have the effect of making the OEMs push Microsoft and Google bid against each other for inclusion.

In other words, same ol' same ol'. Microsoft will undoubtedly offer financial incentives, documented or not, to OEMs to include IE. In a fair fight Mozilla wins. But Microsoft doesn't have much incentive to fight fairly...unless forced to do so.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.