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FAQ: Microsoft's browser 'ballot screen,' the EU and you

What's the antitrust concession all about, who sees it -- and can you still run IE?

July 28, 2009 01:51 PM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft's surprise offer last week to European Union (EU) antitrust regulators that it will give Windows users a chance to download rivals' browsers stunned some, who likened it to waving the white flag.

But it may be the company's best shot at getting the European Commission for Competition to back off.

Ever since EU officials slapped Microsoft with another list of antitrust charges in January 2009, forcing the company to provide a so-called "ballot screen" to users has been the commission's preferred strategy. Microsoft has regularly resisted, going so far as to dump Internet Explorer (IE) from its next operating system, Windows 7, in the hope that the sacrifice would appease regulators.

It didn't. So after what the commission called "extensive discussions," Microsoft caved yet again.

But what does it mean for you? That's what we're here to answer.

What's Microsoft proposing exactly? Microsoft has agreed to provide a "ballot screen" to EU customers that will offer links to downloads of rival browsers. EU antitrust regulators in the European Commission have been high on that idea for more than half a year now.

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

How will it work? If the commission accepts Microsoft's proposal (download Word document), users who have IE as their default browser -- that's the way virtually all new PCs are set -- will see the ballot screen the first time they log on after the screen is distributed (more on that in a moment).

As envisioned by Microsoft, the ballot screen will list two links for each browser -- one reading "Install," the other "Tell me more" -- under a logo for each. 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 Microsoft's proposal. 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? Microsoft's proposal was unclear on that. At one point, it said five; at another, it said 10. But yesterday a source close to Microsoft said that the ballot screen would likely offer five browser options initially, and later expand the list to as many as 10.

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