Group wants Microsoft's browser ballot to go global

Microsoft's rivals urge antitrust regulators worldwide to mimic EU

A lobbying group composed of Microsoft rivals today called on antitrust regulators worldwide to pressure the company into offering a browser ballot screen to their citizens.

The European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS) urged officials outside the European Union (EU) to push for a ballot similar to what Microsoft began serving yesterday to European customers via Windows Update. "Consumers deserve the same unbiased browser choice on all the world's more than 1 billion personal computers," the ECIS said in a statement Tuesday.

The browser ballot was mandated by an agreement Microsoft reached last year with EU regulators, two years after Norwegian browser maker Opera Software filed a formal complaint. The ballot appears on Windows PCs where Internet Explorer (IE) is set as the default browser, and lets users download and install rivals, including Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari and others.

"The European initiative will help spur competition, but leaves most of the world's computers with operating systems that are tied to Internet Explorer," said Thomas Vinje, ECIS's lead counsel. "We call on competition authorities around the world to look closely at what has happened in Europe and to act on behalf of their consumers."

Members of the ECIS include Opera, Adobe, Red Hat, and long-time Microsoft rivals Oracle and IBM.

Opera made the same suggestion last year after it reviewed Microsoft's initial offer to provide a ballot. "We would like to see this happen outside of Europe as well. We think everyone should be offered a choice of browsers," said Hakon Wium Lie, Opera's chief technology officer, in a July 2009 interview.

Vinje said he couldn't remember where today's request by the ECIS originated, but said he doubted it was Opera. "I'm pretty sure it was independent of Opera," he said. "IBM and Red Hat are not just going to meekly follow in the footsteps of a Norwegian browser company. It's a strongly-held view by all our members."

Microsoft is not obligated to take the ballot concept beyond the boundaries of the EU, of course, but Vinje said the ECIS' request was more than a publicity stunt. "We think this has a realistic chance," he said. "It seems to me that when people realize they're not getting the same choice as others in Europe, some of those people might not be happy, and they'll go to consumer groups or other competition agencies."

The ECIS has not reached out to antitrust regulators in countries outside the EU, Vinje said. "Not at the moment, but we're not excluding that."

Microsoft dismissed the ECIS' call. "The issues in the Internet Explorer case have already been the subject of extensive legal action in several other countries around the world, including the United States, which have each developed their own legal solutions which are different than the browser choice screen pursued by the European Commission after years of litigation," said Microsoft spokesman Kevin Kutz. He also noted that PC makers and users worldwide can install the browser of their choice on Windows PCs without a ballot.

The ballot has come under fire for reasons other than its geographical limits. Yesterday, an IBM software architect criticized the ballot's shuffling, saying that his tests showed Google's Chrome is the most likely to get the preferred spots. According to the deal Microsoft struck with EU officials, the ballot screen is to scramble the order of the top five browsers, a change from an earlier Microsoft idea that browser order would be alphabetical by maker.

Both Mozilla, which makes Firefox, and Opera rivals blasted that plan because Apple's Safari, which has a very small share of the Windows browser market, would get the favored first position at the far left.

Microsoft has not yet responded to claims that the ballot randomization is flawed.

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Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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