At first blush, the new Euro-scrum over Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer Web browser and its integration into Microsoft Windows seems like a '90s hit come back to life, a reprise of a conflict over "bundling" music-playing software with the operating system.
In mid-January, the EC gave Microsoft two months to respond to a "statement of objection" that said the American software firm unfairly dominates the Web browser segment. Microsoft could face more fines and other penalties from the European body.
But the decade-ago struggle over the Windows Media Player might be chump change for a digital jukebox compared with the big-dollar world of cloud computing, and that's where today's browser war might have the greatest impact, said one industry insider who asked not to be named.
Dubbed "the next generation of IT service delivery" by research firm International Data Corp., cloud computing integrates software, computer servers and network storage as a means to bring applications to a corporate or governmental enterprise, or even to end users.
Advocates suggest applications will be more easily updated, storage more secure and services globally accessible when users can sign in to their "cloud" via the Internet, requiring a Web browser.
In order to make certain applications run well in cloud computing, said venture capitalist William J. Raduchel, a former AOL executive, standards must be enforced.
Browsers that "break" Internet standards — a charge often levied against Internet Explorer — would hinder cloud computing's adoption, he said.
"I believe it is good public policy to support open standards because open standards enable innovation," Mr. Raduchel said.
Referring to Google's planned Native Client plug-in code, which that firm says would aid cloud computing, he said "something like that needs to happen for browser-based applications to cover … certain corporate applications."
Mr. Raduchel's interest, however, is more than academic: He is now an investor in and board chairman of Opera Software ASA, although he said he was speaking for himself and not that company. Opera's 2007 complaint to the EC triggered the Jan. 15 warning to Microsoft.
If Internet Explorer, which French researchers XiTiMonitor.com claims has dropped to under 60 percent market share in Europe, becomes dominant again, Mr. Raduchel said it might be difficult to bring new standards along.
"There is always a new standard, so browser competition is the way to force that" cooperation and adoption, he said.
Microsoft's hold on the browser market, said Jon S. von Tetzchner, Opera Software's president, makes it difficult for others to compete.
"There are a billion Web sites out there. A fair amount of them, most, just work, [but] a fair amount of them do not," Mr. von Tetzchner said from Oslo. He contended that because of the dominance of the Microsoft product, Web programmers "code for Internet Explorer and maybe for Netscape or Firefox, and that's that."
Mr. von Tetzchner said Opera wants Microsoft to hold to standards, not to open up its operating system to all comers:
"If Microsoft were to follow more standards more carefully, you as an end user would have more choice of browsers," he asserted.
Users may be more sanguine about the browser situation than the EC's complaint suggests. Guntis Bukalders, a communication director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Riga, Latvia, said earlier IE versions had problems with Web standards, but no more: "I have to admit that since IE7 things are not so bad," Mr. Bukalders said. "Today I don't even check for IE compatibility; I develop site[s] for Safari and check Firefox compatibility."