March 30, 2023

“The experience of mobile browsers as a basic utility and the perceived lack of differentiation between them means that having a browser pre-installed on a device is at a huge advantage,” it wrote in the report. “It benefits the operating system and not necessarily the consumer. Many people are hesitant to switch to a new browser because they quickly get used to their pre-installed browser and don’t have a strong incentive to look for an alternative, or may be deterred from discovering one. This conditioning of consumer behavior over time means that moving away from a satisfying pre-installed browser is an active choice that takes some amount of cognitive effort. If people are busy or if the process is too confusing, people stop making changes or decide not to do it at all. For many people, it’s easier to maintain the status quo or postpone the decision until later.”

The report also highlights an interesting link between desktop and mobile browser usage — Mozilla says that “almost all” users of Firefox’s (alternative) mobile browser use Firefox on their desktop computers.

“Our research shows that less than 6% of people in the US who use desktop browsers other than Firefox report using Firefox on their smartphones,” it notes. “This suggests that the more people use Firefox or another alternative browser on their desktop computers, the more likely they are to use that browser on their mobile devices.”

This led to Microsoft’s aggressive promotion of its own browsing software to Windows users — and especially the anti-Firefox messaging it injects into its desktop OS — as a contributor to Firefox’s share of the mobile browser market (despite Microsoft not having a mobile platform). ).

But it’s clear that there are a combination of factors that make it especially difficult for indie browser makers to compete on mobile. And the report points out how it’s challenging because the mobile space is a more tightly controlled and/or integrated (and branded therefore bundled) experience than desktop OSes..

Google, for example, uses contractual restrictions with OEM partners to maximize the proportion of Android devices that come with own-brand services preloaded with the Chrome browser, despite Android being open source. (And the tech giant has certainly landed in antitrust hot water for some of these restrictions — like in the EU, where it’s forced to offer preferred screens to search engine rivals’ ads).

However, consumer familiarity (and comfort) with Big Tech products can clearly operate in lock-step with lock-ins — although, again, platforms can shape that outcome through (and/or by) proactively oversold integration benefits through suggestive messaging. creating friction for alternatives).

“Our research shows that many consumers believe that Chrome is the browser that works best on Android phones and that products from the same company will perform better together (eg Gmail works better in Chrome),” notes Mozilla — pointing to Google as an example. Use of such messages as part of cross-product promotion”.

“It is also closely linked to web compatibility issues and operating system providers restricting or allowing interoperability of third-party browsers, including accessing the same features and APIs provided in their own browsers,” it critically discusses Apple’s ban. Alternative browser engines from its App Store that limit differentiation to compete with Safari because rivals must develop in WebKit (which, historically, reduces their ability to compete and limits how much differentiation they can offer).

“Feature development for alternative browsers on iOS has stalled because Apple – in control of both the browser engine and the operating system – does not make some essential APIs and functionality available to competitors, thereby limiting differentiation.”

Underestimation of choice

Mozilla’s report also highlights instances where a consumer has succeeded in selecting an alternative browser as their default, a platform can still revert to a self-service choice — bypassing their selection to resurrect their browser in certain circumstances, such as an ‘edit Lookup after selecting text in iOS’ (which it notes “historically always opened web search results in Safari, regardless of the default browser selected by the user”); Or opening a web link in the Windows search bar or icon — which opens Edge (again regardless of the default browser setting; or using the search widget on Android — which “will always open results in a Google browser”).

“This exhibit by OCA highlights some of the practices used by operating systems to manipulate their own browser preferences and undermine consumer choice. Legislators and policy makers in some countries have begun to take action against fraudulent patterns to protect consumers. And others have begun to address the lack of effective competition in digital markets by introducing regulations. However, few have recognized the connection between these issues and the importance of browser competition, or studied the role of OCA practices as a way to implement (or fail to) consumer choice and welfare,” argues Mozilla.

“We believe that if people have a meaningful opportunity to try alternative browsers, they will find many to be compelling alternatives to the default ones bundled with their operating systems. These opportunities have been stifled over the years by online choice architectures and commercial practices that benefit platforms and not in the best interests of consumers, developers, or the open web. It is hard to underestimate the impact of self-preference and diminishing consumer choice over the years, including its impact on consumer behavior. It is also difficult to estimate the disruptive innovation, substitute products and features, and independent competitors lost as a result of this practice.”

Mozilla’s report doesn’t go into specific recommendations for regulatory intervention to force platforms to “do better for consumers and developers,” as it says — because it says it plans to publish more work on remedies in the coming months — but it does urge lawmakers. Act to prevent “further harm to consumers from continued inaction and competitive stagnation”.

“Because these companies have so far failed to do well, regulators, policymakers and lawmakers have spent considerable time and resources investigating digital markets. Browsers should therefore be in a better position to realize the importance of competition and prevent further consumer harm from continued inaction and competitive stagnation,” it suggests.

“We urge them to look at the laws that already exist and the laws and regulations that will soon come into force. And where existing laws and regulations are lacking, we call for them to be introduced and highlight their importance to the future of the Internet. Regulators, policymakers and lawmakers in many jurisdictions can take this moment to usher in a new era in the Internet story – one where consumers and developers benefit from real choice, competition and innovation.”

As noted above the EU has taken antitrust enforcement actions related to Google’s Android Agreement restrictions that have resulted in a preferred screen for users in the EU — at least for the default search engine. Mozilla’s report, however, generally dismisses features of existing remedies Online Choice Architecture and Software Design, Rationale: “The remedies that have been deployed so far have many limitations and have largely failed.”

Its conclusion is supported by the lack of meaningful change in Google’s market share for mobile search in Europe — where it captures 96.6% of the market, down just 0.3% since 2018 when the commission fined the company $5BN and ordered it to breach consumer protections. , as the nonprofit Google alternative, Ecosia, recently noted.

Google rival DuckDuckGo has also called for regulators to go much further in controlling screen remedies of choice – arguing in recent years that the design and integration of such tools must enable a truly ‘one-click’ and publicly accessible experience if they are to actually migrate. Needle competes against ingrained platform strength.

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