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Microsoft's EU ballot fails to randomize browser order

'Rookie mistake' means Chrome gets best shot at top spots, says tester

March 1, 2010 03:21 PM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft's new browser ballot screen, which is supposed to randomly scramble the positions of the top five browsers, instead gives Google's Chrome the best chance of landing in the preferred first spot, an IBM software architect said today.

"This was a rookie mistake," said Rob Weir, who works for IBM and has a degree in astrophysics from Harvard University. "I was definitely surprised to see an error of this type [in the ballot]."

Weir, whose title at IBM is ODF Architect, has been a prolific commentator on issues related to the Open Document Format, which IBM supports. Although IBM and Microsoft have butted heads over formats -- Microsoft has pushed its Open XML format as a substitute for ODF -- Weir stopped short of accusing Microsoft of deliberately coding the bug.

"Microsoft appears to have picked the bad approach. But I do not believe there is some nefarious intent," Weir said.

The browser ballot, which began to show today in the Windows Update queues of European users, was mandated by an agreement Microsoft reached last year with European Union antitrust regulators, nearly two years after Norwegian browser maker Opera filed a formal complaint. The ballot appears on Windows PCs where Internet Explorer (IE) is set as the default browser, and lets users download and install rivals, including Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari and others.

According to the deal Microsoft struck with antirust officials last December, the ballot screen is to scramble the order of the top five browsers, a change from an earlier Microsoft idea that browser order would be alphabetical by maker. Several rivals blasted that plan because Apple's Safari, which has a very small share of the Windows browser market, would get the favored first position at the far left. "These five web browsers will be displayed in random order each time the Choice Screen is presented," stated the agreements that Microsoft and the European Commission signed (download Word document)

Weir said that the randomizing process in the ballot was flawed. "They fell into a well-known trap," he said in an interview today. "This doesn't randomly shuffle the positions."

Microsoft failed to use an established random shuffle algorithm -- think of it as the shuffling of a virtual card deck, said Weir -- and instead made what he called a "rookie" mistake of sorting an array with a custom-defined comparison function.

"[This] is more in the nature of a 'naive algorithm,' like the bubble sort, that inexperienced programmers inevitably will fall upon when solving a given problem," Weir explained in a long entry to this personal blog on Saturday. "I bet if we gave this same problem to 100 freshmen computer science majors, at least one of them would make the same mistake."

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