Microsoft settles with EU—browser balloting arrives in March

Windows 7 logoMicrosoft has finally dotted the i's and crossed the t's on its web browser settlement with the EU Competition Commission. Starting in March, users of Windows who have set IE as their default browser will receive a software update that will enable them to choose a different one.

The EU and Microsoft have finally completed negotiations on a settlement that will see Microsoft send out a software update that presents IE users with a browser ballot which enables them to choose another. The settlement isn't substantially different from steps that Microsoft already announced it was taking back in July, but tweaks the interface of the browser ballot to provide what the EU considers a better user experience. The big surprise is how far down the browser food chain the ballot will go. Users will see five different offerings prominently displayed, and can scroll around to access a dozen different browsers.

The EU has posted a series of documents that describe the final settlement. At the OEM level, manufacturers will have the option of completely uninstalling IE and replacing it with a browser of their choice, which will undoubtedly set off a competition among some of the browser makers to woo (or, more accurately, pay) the OEMs. Consumers can also choose their browser when they activate their machines.

But, more significantly, a software package that presents a browser ballot screen to users will be sent via Microsoft's software update mechanism to anyone who is currently using IE as their default browser. Windows 7 users will get the update starting in March, and those running Vista and XP will be seeing it within five months. The update will be made available for five years, and every six months, there will be a market analysis to update the choices offered.

And those choices will be substantial, including browsers that I didn't even realize existed. The EU lists Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, AOL, Maxthon, K-Meleon, Flock, Avant Browser, Sleipnir, and Slim Browser. The top five (Opera and earlier in this list) will be displayed when the ballot launches, and the rest will be accessible via a quick scroll.

Given that Microsoft had already decided to offer a ballot nearly half a year ago, you'd be forgiven for wondering what took so long in order to complete a formal agreement. Mostly, it seems to have involved tweaking the ballot interface. According to the EU, Microsoft initially wanted to make the ballot appear in a tab of an IE window, and set the order that the choices appeared. The software now gets a dedicated window and randomized browser order, which should avoid any presentation bias.

At the same time, Microsoft separately committed itself to a "public undertaking" that will ensure its products remain compatible with the technologies used by other companies. That will include providing documentation to competitors and incorporating industry standards into its own products.

The New York Times suggests the same thing we did when Microsoft announced its decision to offer a ballot in July: Microsoft was willing to make all these tweaks because it fears the EU. In the past few years, its Competition Commission have hit Intel and Microsoft itself with eye-popping fines, and US businesses in general have taken notice, and are now doing whatever they can to avoid becoming the next company to see a huge chunk taken out of its bottom line.

As a result, although Microsoft's Brad Smith called it "an important day and a major step forward," his statement focused on the mechanics of the settlement and the fact that it ended the EU's case.

Neelie Kroes, the Commissioner who has led the Competition Commission to prominence, was obviously pleased with the final version of the ballot. "Millions of European consumers will benefit from this decision by having a free choice about which web browser they use," she stated. "Such choice will not only serve to improve people's experience of the internet now but also act as an incentive for web browser companies to innovate and offer people better browsers in the future."

Similar things were said by those from the companies that helped build the case against Microsoft. "This is a victory for the future of the Web," said Jon von Tetzchner, Opera's CEO. "This decision is also a celebration of open Web standards, as these shared guidelines are the necessary ingredients for innovation on the Web." Google also celebrated the decision. In a blog post filled with promotion of its own cloud services, one of its VPs said that browsers could foster a new wave of innovation "if unleashed."

Although the ballot will eventually ensure that people are aware of other browsers, it's not clear that this will be enough to "unleash" the browser market. The technically savvy already know about the other browsers, while the less so probably have little reason to question whether IE is their best choice. Corporate policy also dictates browser choice on many machines, as our recent redesign made clear. Ars dropped support for IE6 with the new design and, predictably, the decision was greeted with wailing and lamentations by those whose employers won't allow anything else to run on their machines.

Of course, the decision to drop IE6 also demonstrates the sort of market that the EU is trying to prevent. According to the people who developed our new site, IE6's erratic display of standards-compliant HTML and CSS made supporting it far more difficult than providing support for anything current.

Source: ars technica

Tags: browsers, Microsoft, Windows 7

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