Microsoft (MSFT) has a long history of browser woes. And it’s not just the usual complaints about the performance or security risks of various versions of the company’s Internet Explorer web browser. The worst has been the years of legal wrangling and costly fines over Microsoft’s practice of forcing PC users to use IE.
According to a report from The Verge’s Tom Warren, Microsoft could be starting down that slippery slope once again by removing the option to choose Google (GOOG) Search as a default on the first round of Lumia Windows Phone smartphones to be released under its ownership of the Nokia devices.
A Little Internet Explorer History
Microsoft began to run afoul of consumers, competitors and then regulators almost as soon as web browsers made an appearance in the mid-’90s.
Arguing that Internet Explorer was a feature of Windows, not a standalone product, the company bundled its own web browser with all Windows PCs, tying IE functionality into Windows and basically making PC owners jump through hoops if they wanted to use a competing browser.
The practice helped push Internet Explorer to dominate web browser market share, but led to lengthy and costly legal issues that have dragged on for well more than a decade. In 2013, Microsoft was fined another $731 million by the European Union after running afoul of a 2009 commitment to provide PC owners with a clear choice of web browser (MSFT released a Windows 7.1 Service pack that failed to provide a choice of browser display during installation).
In Mobile, Search is the New Browser
Smartphones are different from PCs. A smartphone arrives in a box with the operating system and core apps already installed, and each platform — iOS, Windows Phone 8.1, Android or BlackBerry (BBRY) — includes its own web browser by default.
What’s more critical is the search engine. Not only does the search engine directly impact the owner experience, but search and its related advertising is where the money is made.
Smartphones running Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system use MSFT’s Internet Explorer browser, which is set to use Bing as its default search engine. Users could change a setting in Internet Explorer so that searching in the browsers address bar would use Google Search instead.
The Verge got its hands on unlocked versions of two new Nokia Lumia smartphones — the Lumia 930 and Lumia 630 — the first two devices that will be released under Microsoft ownership. In both cases, they discovered that the option to use Google Search had been disabled.
In other words, Microsoft appears to be forcing purchasers of new Lumia Windows Phone smartphones to stick with Bing as the default, with no way to flip to Google search (other than manually navigating to the Google Search website for every query).
That’s a problem, obviously. But it might not be as big as it originally seems…