Volatile spurts

The blog that never was … almost

Posts Tagged ‘Browser choice

Browser choice

leave a comment »

Today when users in the EU start their windows PCs, they will have a window open automatically displaying a page that provides users the option of installing a browser of their choice. The result of a long drawn out court battle on the anti-competitive practices of Microsoft, the Browser Choice update comes as part of the normal Microsoft windows updates and is designed to function on all machines that have Internet Explorer as the default browser.The reactions and strategies of various software vendors to this mandatory update are pretty interesting.

Microsoft has tried to play it down by making it look like just another legal requirement that it is trying to meet and has hidden its FAQ among the thousands of pages that are hosted on its site designed to address the needs of IT professionals. The browser update page, itself designed and hosted by Microsoft, seems suspiciously similar to the many POP ups that prompt you to install malicious software onto your computer. Only people who choose to install a different browser or click on the “select later” button will be automatically prompted the next time around. Clicking on the red “x” close button on the top right, which to me seems to be the most likely reaction of a lay man,  would disable the automatic pop of the update too. Microsoft has also provided extensive information on how this update can be disabled by enterprises, using language that treats the update as some kind of a nuisance that is best avoided. “If they choose not to deploy the update, their employees and IT infrastructure will not be affected by the update.”

Mozilla the creator of the popular Firefox browser, has gone ahead and put up a dedicated site to educate users on browsers and the importance of choosing the right one. That, to me  looks like fighting for someone else’s rights and having won that fight, teaching that someone about the right that you won for him. Mozilla of course defends itself by insisting that it did not initiate the court case, but now that the decision has been taken, its simply supporting a right cause.

A cause that does not seem to have made any impact on the supposed beneficiaries. Reeling under deteriorating economic conditions, I am not too sure how many European users would appreciate the importance of being able to choose one’s browser, when there are more immediate and tangible objectives like avoiding salary cuts or saving one’s job. Even if one assumed better economic conditions I honestly doubt the impact that this decision could make on the community of browser users.

And that is probably the most interesting aspect of this episode. Can an ostensibly egalitarian notion of choice be achieved using court orders. Ideas of choice and freedom typically assume the validity of the idea without it being tested. And instead of probing whether the idea has any relevance to the intended beneficiary, it is thrust on people who could well be indifferent to it. The European courts have obviously spent thousands of dollars of tax payers, money on a battle that those very tax payers would not even have been aware had been fought … on their behalf. And if they were made aware, they would probably wonder what the fuss was all about.

Mozilla candidly admits that most Europeans are unaware of the browser choice screen and has started a campaign trying to educate them. The problem, as someone bluntly put it, is that you would have to educate a majority of users on what a browser is in the first place. And as for the ones who do know what a browser is. Well, some of them are paying the price of choice already. System administrators across Europe today got calls from users, citing a weird window that opened on  their computers. On of the more frustrated sys admins, in fact wonders about the rights of people who choose not to have this update on their machine. In doing so he reveals an underlying truth about the real choices people make in their lives.

Here is a system administrator, part of whose job is to check the updates coming from a software vendor and then choose the ones he wants to install. Quite obviously he is blissfully unawares of this choice or has chosen not to exercise it for so long that he even forgot it existed. If this is the apathy shown by  a system administrator, one wonders about the end users who are, well, users. An idealistic may live and even die for freedom and choice. But in a real world choice can be a luxury that few can afford to indulge in, and in some cases it may even be a punishment forced on people who simply do not want it.

On the other hand there are those who would insist that this is an obviously elitist way of underestimating certain sections of society. And they would be right to a large extent too. After all, this was precisely the (elitist) view that Winston Churchill and many in the West held about Indian democracy, which they believed would collapse sooner than later.  Ideas of democracy and freedom were for the haves according to them, not people who were starving. Of course we all know that Indian democracy not only survived, but has become an example for many in the world to follow.

Only time will tell how the less important issue of choice of browser pans out. My own bet is on Microsoft for two reasons. The first one is that I do not personally believe that choice is something the court orders for you. The second of course is in the way Microsoft has managed to chosen to execute the court verdict. Like the Irascible Hermann of the irrepressible Saki says

“There are more ways of killing a cat than by choking it with cream, but I’m not sure that it’s not the best way.”

Written by El Presidente

June 11, 2010 at 11:55 pm