Microsoft changes EU browser ballot shuffling

Critic gives the new randomization algorithm passing grade

Responding to reports last week that its European ballot screen was not truly randomizing the positions of the top five browsers, Microsoft today said it has changed the algorithm that shuffles the spots.

"We can confirm that we made a change to the random icon order algorithm in the browser choice screen for Europe," said Microsoft spokesman Kevin Kutz today. "We are confident the algorithm change will be an improvement."

The browser ballot, which began to show last week in the Windows Update queues of European users, was mandated by an agreement Microsoft reached last year with European Union antitrust regulators. 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.

Last week, Rob Weir, an IBM software architect who had tested the ballot screen's randomization, accused Microsoft of sloppy programming that skewed the results toward Google's Chrome, most often put IE in the fifth spot at the far right, and gave Opera an edge over Firefox for the first position.

Weir noticed the improved algorithm last Saturday. "Sometime last week -- I don't know the exact date -- Microsoft updated the code for the browser choice website with a new random shuffle algorithm," Weir said in an entry on his personal blog.

His tests of the new algorithm showed that the chances of a browser ending up in each of the five top spots on the ballot are essentially equal. "This looks fine to me," Weir concluded.

Weir has posted a revamped HTML file that uses the new algorithm to test the ballot; users can run the test by entering an iteration count. To most accurately mimic the actual ballot, the HTML file should be run with IE.

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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