Microsoft nixes EU browser ballot screen

Five-year deal that cost Microsoft $732M expires, but there's little evidence it did anything to change browser trends

browser comparison sept 2014
Credit: Image: Melissa Riofrio

Microsoft has pulled the plug on the browser ballot screen it was forced to display in the aftermath of a threat by the European Union's antitrust agency five years ago.

The browser choice screen had been mandated in 2009 as part of the settlement Microsoft struck with the EU's Competition Commission, which had threatened fines after officials launched an investigation into the U.S. company's practice of bundling Internet Explorer (IE) with Windows. That investigation was launched two years earlier after Norwegian browser maker Opera Software accused Microsoft of manipulating the battle for browser share.

The EU's curative was a screen in Windows that provided download links to other browsers, including Apple's Safari -- which at the time was available for Windows as well as OS X -- Google's Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox and Opera Software's Opera. The screen was shown only to users in the EU, although at one point the commission urged Microsoft to take the ballot worldwide. Microsoft declined.

On Wednesday, Microsoft retired the choice screen. "The obligations imposed by that decision have expired and as a result the Browser Choice Update will no longer be delivered to new users," Microsoft said in a statement. The website maintained by Microsoft was also retired.

In a support document published Wednesday, Microsoft told corporate IT administrators how they could disable the browser ballot on PCs powered by Windows acquired through a volume licensing agreement.

The browser ballot has been costly to Microsoft.

EU browser ballot
This was the original browser choice screen shown to Windows users in the European Union under the 2009 deal Microsoft struck with antitrust regulators. The five-year settlement expired this week, and the ballot has been retired.

In 2013, the EU slapped Microsoft with a $732 million fine after the company omitted the ballot from Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1) for 14 months, from May 2011 until July 2012. Microsoft claimed it was a "technical error" and oversight, and quickly apologized but the Competition Commission levied a fine nonetheless.

At the time, Microsoft offered to extend the original end-of-2014 expiration of browser choice ballot by 15 months -- another attempt to make up for the Windows 7 SP1 gaffe -- but later withdrew the offer.

The fine was cited as one of the reasons why the Microsoft board reduced the 2012 bonuses of then-CEO Steve Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky, then the head of Windows developement. Sinofsky was ousted from Microsoft months later, reportedly after tussling with Ballmer over Windows 8.

There is little evidence that the choice screen changed the browser landscape. Opera, for instance, lost 27% of its global usage share as measured by Irish metrics firm StatCounter between December 2009 and November 2014. Meanwhile, Mozilla's Firefox shed 42% of its share during the same period.

Opera and Mozilla had been the two most vocal critics of IE's unfair advantage in the EU.

U.S.-based analytics vendor Net Applications, which measures user share rather than online activity, has tracked similar trends, including declines of 63% and 47% in Opera and Firefox, respectively, but also a more recent resurgence in IE, which has grown 14% since its December 2011 low point.

Not surprisingly, the EU saw it differently. "The Microsoft commitments, in particular the browser choice screen, were a successful remedy," said a commission spokeswoman in an email reply to questions. "The screen was viewed 795 million times and 165 million browsers were installed through it."

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