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Regulators pale next to Microsoft rivals in busting monopolies

The Microsoft case is a study in how technology monopolies really get fixed. European trust busters on Tuesday fined the U.S. software giant yet another €561-million ($751-million) for anti-competitive behaviour, this time for failing to give users a choice in browsers, as agreed. Neither Microsoft nor the EU acted on the transgression too swiftly. Rivals moved more aggressively to sort out the problem.

Fighting for over a decade against EU claims that it is an abusive monopolist has sapped some of Microsoft's strength and a fraction of its plentiful treasury. Fines now total €2.2-billion. An agreement in 2009 was supposed to at least curtail hostilities. The EU ended an investigation into whether the company was using its dominant position to squelch competition in the browser wars by bundling Internet Explorer with its operating system.

Part of the deal required Microsoft to offer customers a choice of ways to surf the Web. For more than a year, it didn't. After the European Commission came knocking last summer, Microsoft found and admitted that 28 million customers were affected. In what can only be considered a sad irony, it blamed a technical glitch.

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The long delay reinforces the idea that the ability of regulators to encourage competition is limited. By contrast, competitors proved more effective.

Firefox retained a big piece of the market and Apple's Safari made inroads. Google also introduced Chrome in 2008 and is using its strength in search to popularize the browser. Google's search engine doesn't place advertisements on its front page, but does use it to push Chrome. In what would have been an unthinkable challenge to Explorer a decade ago, Chrome is now the most popular browser worldwide by page views with over a third of the market, according to StatCounter.

Of course, Google is also now the target of an EU investigation. Regulators may take an understandably dim view of the Mountain View, Calif.-based company's competitive practices. And yet it has done more to curb Microsoft's browser dominance than anything the commission ever did.

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