Despite Google’s behind-the-scenes lobbying, the US Justice Department has formally okayed the design of the web-search feature built into the new version of Microsoft’s still-dominant Internet Explorer browser, reports the New York Times this morning. Google is worried – for good reason – that the IE search box will lead PC users to use Microsoft’s MSN/Live search engine rather than Google’s. But the government found that the default setting for the IE search box is sufficiently open and easy to change that it doesn’t represent an unfair advantage:
The Justice Department and 17 states, who monitor Microsoft under an antitrust consent decree, studied the feature for months and were regularly briefed by Microsoft, according to the [government’s] court filing. The court document noted that personal computer makers are free to set the default search engine to any service they choose. And the Microsoft browser, the filing said, included “a relatively straightforward method for the user to select a different search engine from the initial default.”
But Google continues to complain about its rival’s tactics. In a statement released after the government’s decision, the company said: “Changing the search engine may be simple by Microsoft’s standards. But if it were truly simple, users would be able to change the default with one click. Microsoft could have easily designed it that way. Instead, they’ve built it so users have to go through multiple steps to choose a search engine.”
This seems more like corporate whining than anything else. The power of the default lies in the fact that most people are not geeks. They have better things to do than to fiddle with their computer’s settings, whether the fiddling involves “one click” or “multiple steps.” They’ll stick with the default as long as it serves their needs – and as long as, in their perception, no clearly superior alternative exists. If Google wants to override the default instinct, in other words, it’s going to have to rely on its ability to produce what customers see as a clearly superior search engine. The Feds aren’t going to step in to protect its semi-monopoly on internet searches.