Microsoft fined by myopic EU

The most expensive line of code ever?

Microsoft has been charged €561m for breaching an EU order requiring the company to offer every new user of a Windows PC a choice about which web browser they use. The Guardian's Charles Arthur reports:

The error arose when Microsoft's own programmers forgot to include a single line of code that would have automatically triggered the "browser choice" program on versions of Windows 7 running its first major update, called Service Pack 1 (SP1).

A source close to Microsoft explained: "It was a single line in the code that triggered the browser choice program. It had a list of versions of Windows to test against: if the version was found in that list, the program would run. They didn't include Service Pack 1, which is effectively a different version of Windows, in that list. And so the program didn't run."

From a rule-of-law point of view, the EU had no option but to charge Microsoft for the breach. It had mandated the company to provide an option; the company had failed to comply with that order.

But the order itself is desperately out of date. It goes back to the fact that Microsoft abused its monopoly over desktop PCs in the late 1990s to ensure Internet Explorer became the dominant web browser, beating the then-leader Netscape Navigator. It was a classic anti-competitive move, and the American Department of Justice accordingly took Microsoft to court, settling in 2001.

But by the time the EU took similar action, in 2009, the computing landscape was completely different. Browsers were no longer just optional extras; they were integral to shipping a PC which worked out of the box at all. The EU could not realistically require the company to ship a version of Windows without any browser, as it had done in 2001 when similar action was brought over the company's bundling of Windows Media Player. And so it required the company to offer users a choice of browser on the first boot-up of Windows 7, instead.

The arbitrary distinction between what does, and doesn't, count as legitimate for Microsoft to bundle in to Windows 7 renders the whole case nonsensical. The company also bundles a calculator, basic text editor, online gaming service and several card games in with the OS, but faces no pressure to strip them out. Meanwhile, Apple, despite having as great a lead in the tablet market (depending on whether e-readers are defined as tablets) as Microsoft does for desktop PCs, faces no legal pressure to offer users a choice as to whether Safari is the default browser for iPads.

There are still ways Microsoft could abuse its monopoly. Requiring any hardware vendor which wants to make PCs and phones to exclusively use Windows on both, for instance, would be pretty clear-cut. But it's getting harder and harder to think of software which it would be unacceptable for Microsoft to bundle with its OSs. As with its misguided war on cookies, the EU is showing its blindness about technological issues.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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To heal Britain’s cracks, it’s time for us northern graduates in London to return home

Isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

I’m from Warrington. The least cultured town in the UK. My town.

I moved to London almost exactly five years ago. Not because I particularly wanted to. Not because I wanted to depart the raucous northern town that I still call home. Because it was my only choice, really. I’d done my stint in the call centres and had some fun. But that couldn’t, surely, be my lot?

After university, I’d already started feeling a little weird and out of place back in Wazza. There were fewer and fewer people who didn’t look at me like I’d just fallen off a futuristic space flight that’d given me a different accent and lofty ideals.

Of course, that’s because most people like me had already skipped town without looking back and were all in the capital trying to strike beyond the ordinary.

The young, the cities, the metropolitan elite are still reeling after last week’s vote and wondering how people, half of our people, have got it so horribly wrong. We’re different, divided, done for.  

One thing I’ve clung onto while I’ve been in London is the fact that I’m from Warrington and proud. It might not be a cultured town, but it’s my town.

But I wasn’t proud of the outcome of the EU referendum that saw my town vote 54.3 per cent to 45.7 per cent to leave.

To be fair, even in my new “home” borough of Hackney, east London, the place with the third-largest Remain vote, one in five people voted for Brexit.

Yes, in one of London’s hottest and most international neighbourhoods, there are quite a lot of people who don’t feel like they’re being taken along to the discotheque.

Perversely, it was the poorest places in the UK that voted in largest numbers to leave the EU – that’s the same EU that provides big chunks of funding to try to save those local economies from ruin.

In many ways, of course, I understand the feelings of those people back in the place I still sometimes think of as home.

Compared to many suffering places in the UK, Warrington is a “boom town” and was one of the only places that grew during the last recession.

It’s a hub for telecoms and logistics companies, because, ironically, its good transport links make it an easy place to leave.

But there are many people who aren’t “living the dream” and, like anywhere else, they aren’t immune from the newspaper headlines that penetrate our brains with stories of strivers and scroungers.

Warrington is one of the whitest places in the UK, and I’m sure, to many locals, that means those immigrants are only a few towns away. There’s already a Polski sklep or two. And a few foreign taxi drivers. Those enterprising bastards.

We have never seriously addressed the economic imbalance in our economy. The gaping north-south divide. The post-industrial problem that politicians in Westminster have handily ignored, allowing the gap to be filled by those who find it quick and easy to blame immigrants.

When schemes like HS2, which is plotted to smash right through the place I grew up, are pushed against all of the evidence, instead of a much-needed, intercity Leeds to Liverpool investment to replace the two-carriage hourly service, it’s like positively sticking two fingers up to the north.

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

That’s not to suggest that our experiences in the capital – or mine at least – haven’t made us a thousand, million times better. 

I’ve met people who’ve lived lives I would never have known and I’m a profoundly better person for having the chance to meet people who aren’t just like me. But to take that view back home is increasingly like translating a message to someone from an entirely different world.

“You know, it’s only because you live in a country like this that a woman like you is allowed to even say things like that,” assured one of my dad’s friends down at the British Legion after we’d had a beer, and an argument or two.

Too right, pal. We live in what we all like to think is an open and tolerant and progressive society. And you’re now saying I shouldn’t use that right to call you out for your ignorance?

We’re both Warringtonians, English, British and European but I can increasingly find more agreement with a woman from Senegal who’s working in tech than I can with you.

It’s absolutely no secret that London has drained brains from the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, to power its knowledge economy.

It’s a special place, but we have to see that there are many people clamouring for jobs they are far too qualified for, with no hope of saving for a home of their own, at the expense of the places they call home.

It’s been suggested in the past that London becomes its own city-state, now Londoners are petitioning to leave the UK.

But isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

We can expect local governments to do more with less, but when will we accept we need people power back in places like Warrington if we want to change the story to one of hope?

If this sounds like a patronising plan to parachute the north London intelligentsia into northern communities to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice... Get fucked, as they say in Warrington.

It was Warrington that raised me. It’s time I gave something back.

Kirsty Styles is editor of the New Statesman's B2B tech site, NS Tech.