IE8 setup change hints at further concessions to EU in antitrust fight

'They wouldn't do this because they wanted to,' says analyst

Microsoft on Thursday bowed to critics involved in the company's European antitrust case who have accused it of silently changing users' default browsers, a move that may be aimed at Brussels-based regulators.

Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) will no longer replace a PC's default browser when a user selects the already-checked "Use express settings" option in the setup screen, Microsoft said on Thursday. Both Opera Software and Mozilla had hammered Microsoft in May over the tactic, accusing the company of force feeding IE8 to users with Windows Update, and silently changing the default browser on PCs.

Opera and Mozilla, the makers of Opera and Firefox, respectively, are linked to the European Union's (EU) case, which has charged Microsoft with "shielding" IE from competition by bundling the browser with Windows. Norwegian browser maker Opera filed the December 2007 complaint that sparked the charges; Mozilla later became an "interested third party," and as such has been allowed to offer its opinion to the EU.

Microsoft, however, only alluded yesterday to Opera's and Mozilla's criticisms and the EU charges, saying instead that, "We heard a lot of feedback from a lot of different people and groups and decided to make the user choice of the default browser even more explicit."

In a blog post peppered with screenshots, Microsoft's IE team spelled out changes to the browser's setup when users receive an upgrade offer to IE8 via Windows Update, or when they download and install IE8 on their own.

Specifically, Microsoft will change the screen that gave people two choices -- "Use express settings" and "Choose custom settings" -- at the beginning of the IE8 setup process. IE8's setup will no longer automatically set IE8 as the PC's default browser during the configuration process when users pick 'Use express settings," which was the basis for Opera's and Mozilla's complaint. That part of the process has been ditched.

Instead, when users select "Use express settings," which is the first of the two choices, they'll next see a frame asking, "Do you want to make Internet Explorer your default browser?" Previously, that dialog box only showed up when users picked the "Choose custom settings" option during IE8 setup.

Users who already have IE set as their default browser won't see the "Do you want to make Internet Explorer your default browser?" box, Microsoft said.

Microsoft won't re-release IE8 to make this change, but will instead "use dynamic updates in order to deliver this change," the IE team's blog said. Sometime around the middle of August, Microsoft will add the change to the process that occurs before the configuration dialogs appear, when setup asks users whether they want to grab the latest Windows and IE8 updates from the company's servers. "Over 90% of users who run IE8 setup opt-in to dynamic updates in & setup," the IE team's blog post claimed.

The change applies not only to users installing IE8 on Windows XP and Vista, but also when people who run an IE rival -- Firefox, Chrome, Opera and Safari, for example -- upgrade to Windows 7.

Microsoft will later push the change to businesses installing IE8 or upgrading their PCs to Windows 7.

"We will make this change available in the next cumulative security update for Internet Explorer," said the IE team, "so administrators that regularly deploy security updates throughout their organization can easily incorporate this new behavior." Microsoft's next scheduled security updates are set for release on Aug. 11, although it's not a given that the company will deliver an IE bug fix next month.

Kevin Kutz, a Microsoft spokesman said only "no comment" when asked whether the change was a result of Opera's and Mozilla's beef with IE8's setup, or if it was related to the changes Microsoft's already made under pressure from EU antitrust officials.

Gartner analyst Michael Silver, however, said that the move smacks of a reaction to rivals' complaints and the EU antitrust charges. "[Microsoft] wouldn't do this because they wanted to," said Silver.

Mozilla's CEO, John Lilly, applauded the move. "Good change: Microsoft does the right thing (finally) with IE8 updater," Lilly said in Twitter post last night.

Microsoft began pushing IE8 to consumers via Automatic Updates in mid-April, and will do the same to enterprises through Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) on Aug. 25.

The company has already made unilateral concessions to the EU over IE. Five weeks ago, Microsoft announced it would ship Windows 7 minus Internet Explorer 8 to EU markets. Most analysts read the move as an attempt by Microsoft to head off antitrust regulators, who may still force the company to take more drastic measures.

European officials have strongly hinted that they may order Microsoft to offer a "ballot screen" the first time they try to get on the Internet from a Windows 7. The screen would offer users several browser choices that would then either be activated -- if all were pre-installed on the machine -- or downloaded and installed. Microsoft opposes such a screen.

Last week, Microsoft said it would disable IE8 on Windows 7E machines, but that it would keep much of the browser's code on the hard drive, citing its need by its own software and that created by third-party developers. On Wednesday, Opera called that a "minor technical tweak" that did not go far enough to level the playing field.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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