Update: Browser makers question Microsoft-EU ballot plan

Opera, Mozilla and Google request changes to ballot screen

Microsoft's rivals will ask European antitrust regulators to modify the ballot screen designed to give Windows users the chance to ditch Internet Explorer (IE) and choose another browser.

Opera Software, which sparked the investigation into Microsoft's bundling of IE, Mozilla and Google will each send separate letters to the European Commission suggesting changes to the proposal put forward by Microsoft last summer, according to Hakon Wium Lie, Opera's chief technology officer.

"In general, we're very happy with Microsoft's proposal because it gives consumers a choice of a better browser," said Lie today. "But we have some issues about the ballot."

Most important in Opera's eyes is that the ballot should be displayed outside of IE. Microsoft's plan would create an HTML-based ballot that would appear as a Web page within its own browser. "From the screenshots we've seen, we don't think it's right that the ballot appears within IE," said Lie. "If you're trying to provide a level playing field, you don't want it to be seen as subservient to IE. You wouldn't want a voting ballot that had a candidate's logo on the upper left corner, would you?"

In early October, the commission tentatively approved Microsoft's plan, which would offer European users of Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 a Web-based page showing five browsers, then let them select which they would install and run on their PCs. To get that preliminary approval, Microsoft made several changes to its original July proposal.

Opera wants the ballot displayed within a specially-designed application, or failing that, in IE's full-screen mode, which would eliminate the frame Microsoft's browser would put around the ballot.

Mozilla, which has also criticized Microsoft's ballot screen, has made a similar suggestion. In a blog entry published Monday, Jenny Boriss, a Firefox user experience designer, denigrated the ballot's layout and said that it gave IE more than three times the space than rivals' browsers because the ballot would be displayed within Internet Explorer. Boriss said that her recommendation was her own, not Mozilla's official company line.

Last month, Boriss blasted the ballot for giving preference to Apple's Safari based on the alphabetical ranking by browser maker. Initially, she did not spell out that her take was a personal one; the appearance of her blog on the Mozilla site led some, including Computerworld, to assume it was Mozilla's position as well.

"We support that, too," said Lie today when asked what Opera thought of Boriss' call to randomize the order of the browser choices. "Alphabetizing would just lead to opportunistic naming," he said. "We could call ourselves AAA Browser Maker and get the first spot."

Lie said that Google and Mozilla would also be expressing their concerns to the commission in letters that have to arrive by Monday, Nov. 9. Opera has not yet sent its letter, he added, but would shortly.

Google, which makes the Chrome browser, declined to confirm that it is sending a letter. "We don't know how the commission's proceeding will evolve," said William Echikson, a Google spokesman based in Brussels, said early Thursday in a telephone interview with Computerworld. "But we continue to believe that more competition in this space will mean greater innovation on the Web and a better user experience."

Mozilla also would not confirm that it has sent suggestions to the commission. "Our concerns were stated previously and we're confident that the EC is well aware of our position, including support for the resolution of the investigation," said a Mozilla spokesman today.

Like Opera, Mozilla has been vocal about its dissatisfaction with Microsoft's plan.

In August, for example, Mozilla executives cited several concerns about the ballot screen. At the time, Mitchell Baker, the chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation and the former CEO of Mozilla Corp., which produces Firefox, said that if Microsoft's proposal were accepted, IE would "still have a unique and uniquely privileged position on Windows installations."

Opera also wants Microsoft to promise that it would bar Windows from displaying any security warning when people pick a browser to download and install. "The general security warning that you get prior to a binary download should not appear," Lie said.

Neelie Kroes, the current head of the EU's antitrust agency, seemed satisfied last month with the deal. "We believe this is an answer," said Kroes in a press conference on Oct. 7. "At the end of the day that's what we are looking for."

Sources have said it's likely that Kroes wants to resolve the dispute with Microsoft before the end of the year, when her term as the commission head expires. An early December date is most likely, those sources have said. That would mean Microsoft would push the ballot to users via Windows Update in February 2010.

Parties to the case, which include the three browser makers and the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), a trade group whose members include Opera and other long-time Microsoft rivals Oracle and IBM, have until Monday to file comments with the commission.

The ECIS has also said it will suggest changes to European regulators.

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