Update: Mozilla slams Microsoft over Windows 10's default browser switcheroo

Drops not-so-subtle reminder about Microsoft's $732M fine by EU regulators over browser choice in Windows

Firefox's Windows 10 design specs
Credit: Mozilla

Mozilla yesterday went public with its complaint about Windows 10 resetting the default browser, calling it "disturbing" and demanding that it "undo its aggressive move to override user choice."

Microsoft defended the practice of making its Edge browser the default in Windows 10, but left open the possibility of a future change. "As with all aspects of the product, we have designed Windows 10 as a service; if we learn from user experience that there are ways to make improvements, we will do so," a company spokeswoman said in an email reply to a request for comment.

In a letter from Mozilla CEO Chris Beard to Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, Beard slammed the way Windows 10 setup changed the default browser on a Windows 7 or 8.1 PC upgraded to Windows 10.

"I am writing to you about a very disturbing aspect of Windows 10," Beard said in the letter, which Mozilla posted publicly. "Specifically, that the update experience appears to have been designed to throw away the choice your customers have made about the Internet experience they want, and replace it with the Internet experience Microsoft wants them to have."

Beard was referring to the Windows 10 upgrade setup process, which in "Express Settings" assigns the new Microsoft browser, Edge, as the default, even if users had previously specified a rival like Mozilla's Firefox or Google's Chrome. Most users will simply click "Next" in the Express Setup without diving into the details.

Users who accept that setting for Edge must later -- the first time they click on a link -- confirm Edge as the default.

Windows 10 users can later re-assign Firefox or another browser as the default, but doing so requires work on the part of the user, many of whom will be unlikely to bother.

That rubbed Beard the wrong way. "We appreciate that it's still technically possible to preserve people's previous settings and defaults, but the design of the whole upgrade experience and the default settings APIs have been changed to make this less obvious and more difficult," Beard complained to Nadella.

In a blog post, Beard elaborated on Mozilla's displeasure with Windows 10's upgrade behavior, and resurrected antitrust actions Microsoft's faced, perhaps hinting at new complaints to regulators, if not in the U.S., then in the European Union (EU). "It is bewildering to see, after almost 15 years of progress bolstered by significant government intervention, that with Windows 10 user choice has now been all but removed," Beard alleged.

Beard was referring to the dispute between Microsoft and the EU's European Commission over browser installation that dated back to 2009, when under threat from Brussels-based officials, Microsoft modified Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 to give users an explicit choice about which browsers they ran on their PCs. A settlement came after several companies, including Norwegian browser build Opera, griped that Microsoft was abusing its OS dominance to push Internet Explorer on customers.

As part of the settlement, Microsoft pledged to build -- and did -- a display that let EU users pick which browser they installed when they first ran Windows.

Years later, however, Microsoft screwed up when it omitted the browser choice screen from Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1). Microsoft contended that it had been a simple technical oversight, but in 2013 the EU slapped the U.S. company with a $732 million fine for dropping the ball.

Beard pointed out that Mozilla had reached out to Microsoft before yesterday to express its misgivings about the express setting of Edge as the default browser in Windows 10. "When we first encountered development builds of Windows 10 that appeared would override millions of individual decisions people have made about their experience, we were compelled to immediately reach out to Microsoft to address this. And so we did. Unfortunately, this didn't result in any meaningful change," Beard said.

Publicly available planning documents that Computerworld found last week showed that Mozilla knew then that Windows 10 would alter the browser default, and was crafting a campaign to try to retain Firefox users. As part of that campaign, Mozilla pulled its touch-based Windows browser out of mothballs; the Windows 10 version of Firefox is to launch Aug. 11.

Mozilla can ill afford to lose large numbers of users: While Firefox's share has stabilized at around 12% of all browsers worldwide in 2015 -- ending June with 12.1% -- its share is now about half what it was two years ago.

But Beard denied that Mozilla's complaint was related to Firefox. "These changes aren't unsettling to us because we're the organization that makes Firefox," Beard said in his letter to Nadella. "They are unsettling because there are millions of users who love Windows and who are having their choices ignored, and because of the increased complexity put into everyone's way if and when they choose to make a choice different than what Microsoft prefers."

Microsoft has its own browser problems. It has had a hard time holding onto Internet Explorer (IE) users since August 2014, when it abruptly told most customers that they needed to upgrade to IE11 by January 2016. Google's Chrome has been the main beneficiary of that announcement,

More problematic for Microsoft: It will soon lose control of its last IE stronghold. According to research firm Gartner, next year Chrome will dominate corporations, with about two-thirds of enterprise users running Chrome as their primary browser.

Microsoft's decision to make Edge the default browser in Windows 10 during the upgrade process was likely a move to shore up its browser share overall, and kick-start the brand-new Edge at the same time. The Redmond, Wash. company is banking on revenue from its Bing search engine -- the default in Edge -- to replace the money lost as Windows license sales fall. On Wednesday, David Pann, the general manager of the Bing Ads group, told Web advertisers that Microsoft expected a 10% to 15% jump in search queries because of Windows 10.

Microsoft has since yanked the blog post by Penn that outlined the bump in Bing usage.

Because Bing is tightly tied to Edge -- and baked into several other parts of Windows 10 -- changing the browser during a Windows 10 upgrade also favors Bing, to the detriment of rivals, primarily Google.

Along with the public displeasure at Windows 10's behavior, Mozilla also posted step-by-step instructions for users who wanted to restore Firefox as the default browser. Those same tutorials could be used to make Chrome or Opera Software's Opera the default.

"We strongly urge you to reconsider your business tactic here," Beard told Nadella. "We are ... again insist[ing] that Windows 10 make it easy, obvious and intuitive for people to maintain the choices they have already made -- and make it easier for people to assert new choices and preferences."

In a statement, Microsoft did not directly reply to Beard's call for action, but instead defended the Windows 10 upgrade process. "We designed Windows 10 to provide a simple upgrade experience for users and a cohesive experience following the upgrade," a spokeswoman said. "During the upgrade, consumers have the choice to set defaults, including for Web browsing. Following the upgrade, they can easily choose the default browser of their choice."

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