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Microsoft's IE 'ballot screen' faces new resistance

Proposal 'will be entirely ineffective,' says trade group as EU tries to wrap up browser antitrust case

September 28, 2009 06:32 AM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft faces more criticism over the browser "ballot screen" proposal it made to European antitrust regulators, possibly delaying a deal, the Wall Street Journal said Sunday.

According to a story published on the newspaper's Web site, the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), a trade group whose members include Norwegian browser maker Opera Software, argued that the ballot screen concept would confuse users.

In late July, Microsoft said it would give Windows users a chance to download rivals' browsers, as part of its campaign this year to mollify the European Commission, the EU's antitrust agency. The EC filed charges in January 2009 accusing the company of shielding Internet Explorer from competition by bundling it with Windows.

A key part of that plan would be a "ballot screen" that EU Windows users would see if IE was set as the default browser. Under Microsoft's proposal, the ballot would offer links to downloads of Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome and Opera's flagship Opera.

This summer, the commission issued questionnaires to those competitors, as well as to computer makers and others, asking for opinions on the Microsoft proposal.

Although at least one rival browser maker, U.S.-based Mozilla, has said it wanted changes made to Microsoft's proposal, the ECIS is the first to publicly acknowledge it has officially informed the commission of its concerns.

Choosing another browser requires "the user to confirm and answer threatening and confusing warnings and questions," Thomas Vinje, an attorney and spokesman for the ECIS, told the Journal. "Microsoft has cunningly found a way to accept the commission's suggestion of a ballot screen, but to do so in a way that will be entirely ineffective."

Vinje did not reply to a request Sunday for further comment.

Under Microsoft's proposal, Windows 7 users would receive an update starting Oct. 22, the new operating system's official launch date, or two weeks after the commission rules, whichever comes later. Windows XP and Vista users will be on a slower schedule: Microsoft said it would give them the ballot screen three to six months after EU regulators sign off on the plan.

In April, the ECIS was granted "interested third party" status in the case, allowing it to obtain the EU's charges against Microsoft and to comment on the action. Previously, both Mozilla, which makes Firefox, and Google, the creator of Chrome, had also been awarded the same status.

Opera Software was already involved in the case; its December 2007 complaint to the commission sparked the antitrust investigation.

The ECIS's criticisms may put the brakes on a deal, which EU officials had hinted last week might be near. Neelie Kroes, head of the EU's antitrust agency, told The New York Times on Sept. 22 that she hoped to "close that dossier," referring to the Microsoft browser case, before her term expires at the end of October. But an early resolution may be hampered by opposition, especially if the ECIS's comments have been echoed by Microsoft's competitors.

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