Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 4 January 2022


 Microsoft Is Trying to Force You to Use Its Software Like It’s 1998 All Over Again

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If you're using Windows, however, Microsoft very much wants you to use both. For example, Windows 11 makes it very difficult to get away from Edge as the default. Sure, you can set a different browser as your default, but any link within the system will still open in Edge regardless of your choice. Microsoft even went so far as to block a utility called EdgeDeflector that opened those links in whatever browser you set as default.

Windows 11 also includes Teams installed by default, and it has a central place in the dock, whether you want it there or not. If you happen to use Outlook as your email and calendar client, it automatically includes a Teams link when you're sending an invitation for a meeting. Among other problems, that can get confusing if you're using Zoom, for example.

Again, it's not that these are bad products. The problem is that Microsoft's current push to get people to use its software has very serious 1998 vibes. 

That was the year the Department of Justice sued Microsoft over its anticompetitive behavior, mostly that it was forcing PC manufacturers to include Microsoft Internet Explorer on computers that ran its Windows operating system. At the time, Microsoft was the most dominant software company in the world. It made the operating system that powered the vast majority of personal computers, and its Office productivity suite was also the default option for businesses and consumers. 

Microsoft had also decided it should be making a browser to fend off competition from Netscape. It leveraged its control over the operating system to force PC manufacturers to include its browser, Internet Explorer. As you might imagine, Explorer quickly became the most dominant browser in the world. 

Eventually, Microsoft and the DOJ settled, and the company agreed to make it easier for third-party developers to take advantage of APIs on Windows. Separately, in Europe, Microsoft had to offer users a "browser ballot" which included a handful of competing browsers and gave the option of which they wanted to download. 

Microsoft has obviously done pretty well since then. It's currently the second-most valuable company in the world, after Apple. It even passed Apple last month for a few weeks as the largest company by market cap. 

Many critics argue that the settlement was less than a slap on the list, since it didn't prevent Microsoft from tying future products to Windows, which is exactly what is happening today. Now, however, it isn't PC manufacturers that Microsoft is trying to compel with its tactics; it's doing it to users. Microsoft is trying to force you to use Edge and Teams, even if you've chosen to use a competing option.

One of the ironic side effects of the antitrust case against Microsoft is that it paved the way for Google Chrome to become the most dominant browser in the world today. The vast majority of people--including the vast majority of Microsoft's customers--use Google Chrome despite its problems. 

Of course, when you're as big as Microsoft, it gets harder to grow even bigger. You end up having to exploit every advantage to try to keep your customers using more and more of your products and services. That seems like Microsoft's strategy, and it's no doubt financially successful for the company. The problem is that it makes the overall user experience worse, which is the one thing no company should ever do. 

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