EU-Microsoft browser deal requires ballot screen in Windows 8

Microsoft declines to comment on its interpretation of the 2009 settlement

Microsoft today declined to comment when asked whether it believed it's required to offer a ballot screen in Windows 8 to European users for selecting rival browsers in the new operating system's desktop mode.

In late 2009, Microsoft struck a deal with European Union (EU) antitrust regulators that required the company to display a screen in Windows providing download links to other browsers, including Mozilla's Firefox, Google's Chrome and Opera Software's Opera.

The settlement specifically called out future editions of Windows.

"For Windows Client PC Operating Systems after Windows 7, the Choice Screen update will first be made available at the general commercial release date of such an operating system and remain in place for distribution ... for the entire duration of these Commitments," the document stated.

According to the final agreement (download PDF), the deal has a five-year lifespan -- meaning it will expire in late 2014 -- and broadly defined "Windows" and "Internet Explorer" to include "successors" of the then-current Windows 7 and IE8.

Microsoft and EU regulators came to agreement on browser choice after a two-year investigation by the latter, who filed a formal "statement of objections" to Microsoft's practice of bundling Internet Explorer (IE) in January 2009. The EU inquiry was prompted by a 2007 complaint submitted by Norwegian browser maker Opera Software.

Microsoft agreed to provide a way to disable IE and to show a ballot screen to users who had not changed the default browser.

Windows has always shipped with IE as the default browser, a practice Microsoft continued with Windows 8 Consumer Preview, the early build it launched in February.

Although Windows 8 features a new "Metro" mode for smaller-scale, touch-based apps, it also boasts a traditional "desktop" environment where existing x86/64 applications -- those which now run in Windows 7, for example -- operate. Current browsers, such as Firefox, Chrome and Opera will be able to run in the desktop mode, even if they're not recast to include a Metro front end.

If implemented in Windows 8's desktop, the ballot screen would presumably feature the same set of rival browsers as is now offered to Windows 7 customers in the European Union and several other countries.

Microsoft declined to comment on its interpretation of the ballot screen requirement regarding Windows 8 and its desktop.

The EU's Competition Commission -- the body's antitrust agency -- was not available for comment Monday.

Browser rival Opera also declined to comment; Google and Mozilla did not immediately reply to requests for their stance on the ballot screen in Windows 8.

The question of the ballot screen's applicability to Windows 8 was first raised last week by Mozilla when its chief counsel, Harvey Anderson, blasted Microsoft for blocking access to Win32 APIs in Windows RT, the edition that will power devices with ARM-licensed processors.

At the time, Anderson argued that Windows RT -- while a separate version from Windows 8, it shares considerable code with its sibling -- may also be bound by Microsoft's settlement with the EU.

"If Windows on ARM is simply another version of Windows on new hardware, it also runs afoul of the EC browser choice commitments," Anderson wrote in a May 9 blog post.

The Microsoft-EU settlement provides an enforcement clause that allows the latter to reopen the case or levy substantial fines if it believes the former is in violation of the agreement.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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