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FAQ: How the IE ballot screen works

Microsoft, EU ink deal, but what's under the hood of landmark concession?

December 17, 2009 07:25 AM ET

Computerworld - After an 11-month legal face-off, Microsoft and European antitrust officials yesterday signed off on the ballot screen concept that will give Windows users a chance to download rivals' browsers.

It was a hard and winding road.

Ever since European regulators slapped Microsoft with antitrust charges in January 2009, forcing the company to provide a so-called "ballot screen" to users has been the EU's strategy. Microsoft, however, resisted fiercely, going so far as to temporarily dump Internet Explorer (IE) from Windows 7, in the hope that the move would appease the people in Brussels.

It didn't. So after what the European Commission called "extensive discussions," Microsoft caved yet again, putting forward a proposal that many of its competitors saw as flawed at best, self-serving at worst. That proposal went through two more drafts before the EU was satisfied.

But now that the battle's over and the ink has dried, how will the ballot screen work? That's what we're here to answer.

What's Microsoft promised? Microsoft has agreed to provide a "ballot screen" to most European customers that will offer links to downloads of rival browsers. Antitrust regulators in the European Commission have been high on that idea for nearly a year now.

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

How will it work? According to the Commitments document that was the basis of the agreement between Microsoft and the EU (download Word document), users who have IE as their default browser will see the ballot screen the first time they log on after the screen is distributed (more on that in a moment).

The ballot screen will include two links -- one reading "Install," the other "Information" -- under each browser's logo. 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 the Commitments. 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? Twelve altogether, but just five on the first page.

The first five are Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome, Microsoft's IE, Mozilla's Firefox and Opera. On a second screen, the ballot will list AOL, Maxthon, K-Meleon, Flock, Avant Browser, Sleipnir and SlimBrowser.

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