Since goading the European Union (EU) into a spurious investigation of Microsoft's bundling of Internet Explorer (IE) with Windows, niche browser maker Opera has been at the forefront of the fight, pushing Microsoft legally in ways it could never accomplish in the open market. Recently, Microsoft revealed that it would offer a way for consumers and businesses to remove IE from the upcoming Windows 7, a move that it expects will satisfy any antitrust inquiry. Opera, naturally, says it's not enough.

"It doesn't really change much, does it?"Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner asks rhetorically. "We want to make sure everybody follows the rules and ensure there's competition in the market."

According to Opera, Microsoft's bundling of IE with Windows will guarantee Microsoft a large share of the browser market because so many consumers simply use what comes in the box. However, Microsoft's decision to make IE removable means that PC makers are free to strike their own deals with browser makers--including Opera--so it's possible that, a year from now, IE will only be one browser option on mainstream PCs.

Opera kick-started the current EU investigation into IE/Windows bundling by complaining to the European Commission in December 2007. Opera's solution to the problem is simple: Microsoft should be forced to include other browsers in Windows. "How exactly that would be done tactically isn't up to us, but consumers should have an equal choice of browsers," Tetzcher says.

That's an opinion that's not necessarily shared by other browser makers, like Mozilla and Google, which are also involved in the EU case against Microsoft. "There's no good UI for \[offering multiple browsers in the OS\]," Mozilla Firefox architect Mike Connor said last month.

At the heart of this discussion, of course, is the simple fact that IE's market share has been falling steadily since Opera issued its original complaint. In fact, all non-IE browsers--with the glaring exception of Opera--have demonstrably increased usage share in that time, and a powerful new competitor, Google, has launched its own browser.

None have been more successful raising share than Mozilla. Its Firefox browser now controls over 20 percent of the market, compared to 67.5 percent for IE. As for Opera, it brings up the rear with 0.7 percent market share. Looking back to the end of 2007, we see that IE's market share at the time was 77.3 percent, while Firefox had just 15.8 percent, making for some dramatic changes with both of those browsers. Opera controlled just 0.62 percent of the market at the time.

For Microsoft, of course, raising usage share is job one: The company is expected to launch its next generation IE version, IE 8, in the coming days. IE 8 will be a free download for Windows XP and Vista users and will of course be included with the upcoming Windows 7 release. IE 8 includes various functional, security, and performance improvements over its predecessor, IE 7.

In related news, Opera this week announced an early beta version of its forthcoming browser version, which may be marketed as Opera 10 or Opera Turbo. You can find out more in the Opera Labs blog.
http://labs.opera.com/news/2009/03/13/