FAQ: How the IE ballot screen works

Microsoft, EU ink deal, but what's under the hood of landmark concession?

After an 11-month legal face-off, Microsoft and European antitrust officials yesterday signed off on the ballot screen concept that will give Windows users a chance to download rivals' browsers.

It was a hard and winding road.

Ever since European regulators slapped Microsoft with antitrust charges in January 2009, forcing the company to provide a so-called "ballot screen" to users has been the EU's strategy. Microsoft, however, resisted fiercely, going so far as to temporarily dump Internet Explorer (IE) from Windows 7, in the hope that the move would appease the people in Brussels.

It didn't. So after what the European Commission called "extensive discussions," Microsoft caved yet again, putting forward a proposal that many of its competitors saw as flawed at best, self-serving at worst. That proposal went through two more drafts before the EU was satisfied.

But now that the battle's over and the ink has dried, how will the ballot screen work? That's what we're here to answer.

What's Microsoft promised? Microsoft has agreed to provide a "ballot screen" to most European customers that will offer links to downloads of rival browsers. Antitrust regulators in the European Commission have been high on that idea for nearly a year now.

From the commission's point of view, Microsoft's bundling of Internet Explorer (IE) with Windows has been an abuse of its dominant position in the operating system market. In January, the commission said Microsoft "shields" IE from competition; it wanted the company to make it easier for users -- some whom may not even realize that there are alternatives to IE -- to download and install browsers like Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera and others.

How will it work? According to the Commitments document that was the basis of the agreement between Microsoft and the EU (download Word document), users who have IE as their default browser will see the ballot screen the first time they log on after the screen is distributed (more on that in a moment).

The ballot screen will include two links -- one reading "Install," the other "Information" -- under each browser's logo. The install link will take the user to "a vendor-managed distribution server, which, upon the user's confirmation, can directly download the installation package of the selected Web browser," according to the Commitments. The informational link will lead to the browser maker's site for more details about the application and other installation options.

How many browsers will be on the ballot? Twelve altogether, but just five on the first page.

The first five are Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome, Microsoft's IE, Mozilla's Firefox and Opera. On a second screen, the ballot will list AOL, Maxthon, K-Meleon, Flock, Avant Browser, Sleipnir and SlimBrowser.

You're not alone if you think "huh?" after seeing that list; some of the browsers in the second tier might be unfamiliar to even the most passionate browser aficionados. Sleipnir, for example, is a Japanese browser with an estimated 100,000 users, best noted for being able to render pages using either Microsoft's Trident engine -- the same one used in IE -- or Mozilla's Gecko.

Who decides what browsers are on the ballot? The ballot will list the top 12 browsers as determined by three metrics sources: U.S.-based comScore and Net Applications, and Ireland's StatCounter. Every six months, the browsers' overall rankings will be determined by the arithmetic mean of the data sources' rankings. A browser must be included in at least two of the three sources; those with rankings in all three will drop the lowest ranking before the mean is calculated.

To get a ballot spot, a browser must run on Windows 7.

In what order will the ballot list the browsers? Last summer, Microsoft proposed that browsers be listed alphabetically, left to right, by the maker's name, a plan that would have put (Apple's) Safari in the preferred spot.

Rivals quickly bashed that idea. An interface designer at Mozilla slammed the design as unfair, saying it gave Safari the best spot on the ballot, ironic since Apple's browser has the fewest Windows users of any of the top five candidates. Opera's chief technology officer later added his criticism, noting that, "We could call ourselves AAA Browser Maker and get the first spot."

Microsoft's competitors got what they wanted: The ballot screen randomizes the order of the browsers -- both the five on the first page, as well as the seven remaining browsers -- each time it's displayed.

Will the ballot be displayed in an IE window? Not quite.

Although that was Microsoft's original idea, rivals objected to the additional attention that would give IE, so the ballot will instead be displayed in a browser frame that is marked as IE only in the title bar and in URL address bar with a small IE-style logo.

Will IE disappear from the PC if you pick a different browser? No, not unless in Windows 7 you manually turn IE8 off.

In all other instances, IE remains on the machine if you choose one or more rival browsers. The Start and All Programs menus retain IE, for example. However, once the ballot launches, the IE icon will be automatically "unpinned" from the Windows task bar, and remain unpinned unless the user manually adds it back.

Who will see the browser ballot screen? Only users running Windows who live in one of the 30 countries in the European Economic Area (EEA) will get the ballot. The EEA is composed of the 27 European Union members, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

Although Opera, the Norwegian browser developer that sparked the antitrust investigation with its December 2007 complaint, earlier this year urged Microsoft to unilaterally offer the ballot worldwide, that's not going to happen.

According to Microsoft spokesman Kevin Kutz, his company has no plans to offer the ballot outside the EEA.

Will all Windows users in Europe see the ballot? Not quite. Microsoft agreed to push the ballot to machines running Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7.

How will Microsoft get us the ballot? Microsoft will push the ballot screen via Windows Update.

Windows XP users will receive the screen as a "High Priority" non-security update, while Vista and Windows 7 users will see it pitched as an "Important" update. In all cases, the ballot screen will automatically be downloaded and installed on PCs that have opted for automatic updates through Windows Update.

Speaking of Windows Update, Microsoft also promised that it would not use the update service to offer any new version of IE to European users unless IE is turned on. (Only Windows 7 offers users the option of disabling IE.)

Mozilla paid special attention to that provision when it applauded the agreement. "Mozilla is most pleased with the core principles Microsoft will be adopting that protect the choices a person has already made," said Mitchell Baker, former CEO of Mozilla Corp. and currently the chairman of the Mozilla Foundation. "Once a person has chosen an alternative browser, IE should not keep reappearing," Baker added in an entry to her blog Wednesday.

When will Microsoft start offering the ballot screen? Microsoft has pledged to kick off the ballot screen by sending it as a Windows Update starting no later than March 17, 2010, 13 weeks from the agreement's signing on Wednesday. It may take another two months -- until mid-May -- for all Windows XP and Vista users to receive the ballot update, however.

Future versions of Windows, which are also must abide by the five-year agreement, will have a ballot screen update ready to roll when the new operating system launches.

At no point will Microsoft "slipstream" the ballot into a production version of Windows -- say, Windows 7 Service Pack 1, or Windows 8. The ballot will always be delivered as a Windows Update item.

Does Microsoft have to regularly report the status of the ballot screen to EU antitrust officials? Yes.

Within six months -- by mid-June, 2010 -- Microsoft must submit a detailed report to the European Commission "on the implementation of these Commitments." After that, Microsoft must file a report every December that outlines progress, brings up any difficulties, forwards any complaints by third parties and notes the uptake of the ballot screen by users.

Microsoft must also make changes to the ballot at the request of the commission.

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

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