FAQ: Microsoft's browser 'ballot screen,' the EU and you

What's the antitrust concession all about, who sees it -- and can you still run IE?

Microsoft's surprise offer last week to European Union (EU) antitrust regulators that it will give Windows users a chance to download rivals' browsers stunned some, who likened it to waving the white flag.

But it may be the company's best shot at getting the European Commission for Competition to back off.

Ever since EU officials slapped Microsoft with another list of antitrust charges in January 2009, forcing the company to provide a so-called "ballot screen" to users has been the commission's preferred strategy. Microsoft has regularly resisted, going so far as to dump Internet Explorer (IE) from its next operating system, Windows 7, in the hope that the sacrifice would appease regulators.

It didn't. So after what the commission called "extensive discussions," Microsoft caved yet again.

But what does it mean for you? That's what we're here to answer.

What's Microsoft proposing exactly? Microsoft has agreed to provide a "ballot screen" to EU customers that will offer links to downloads of rival browsers. EU antitrust regulators in the European Commission have been high on that idea for more than half a year now.

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

How will it work? If the commission accepts Microsoft's proposal (download Word document), users who have IE as their default browser -- that's the way virtually all new PCs are set -- will see the ballot screen the first time they log on after the screen is distributed (more on that in a moment).

As envisioned by Microsoft, the ballot screen will list two links for each browser -- one reading "Install," the other "Tell me more" -- under a logo for each. 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 Microsoft's proposal. 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? Microsoft's proposal was unclear on that. At one point, it said five; at another, it said 10. But yesterday a source close to Microsoft said that the ballot screen would likely offer five browser options initially, and later expand the list to as many as 10.

The ballot will actually be a Web page hosted by Microsoft, with the browsers in a horizontal line, with the placement left to right determined by usage share.

Who decides what browsers are on the ballot? If the commission buys into Microsoft's concept, the ballot will list the top five (or 10) browsers as determined by EU usage share. "The Ballot Screen will be populated with the most widely-used web browsers that run on Windows with a usage share of equal to or more than 0.5% in the EEA as measured semi-annually by a source commonly agreed between Microsoft and the European Commission," the proposal reads. The "source commonly agreed upon" hasn't been selected -- that's up for discussion between Microsoft and the commission -- but there are a limited number of firms that track browser metrics. Among them: U.S.-based Net Applications, which hasn't published its June data yet because of a glitch in the count, and Ireland's StatCounter.

Opera, for instance, has always leaned towards the latter, since the Irish company usually pegs that browser with a higher usage share than, say, Net Applications.

If the ballot screen showed up today, what browsers would be on it? Assuming StatCounter's numbers from the first half of 2009 are used, the ballot would show IE, Firefox, Opera, Safari and Chrome, and in that order from left to right.

Each browser maker would get just one spot on the ballot; in other words, Firefox 2.x, 3.x and 3.5 count as one browser for the purposes of the usage share tally and the ballot screen link listing.

So IE will be on the ballot? Most definitely, said Microsoft.

How many browsers can I download using the ballot screen? As many as you want.

Who will see the browser ballot screen? Only users running Windows in what Microsoft called the "European Economic Area" (EEA) will get the ballot.

Some, including Opera Software, the Norwegian browser developer that sparked the antitrust investigation with its December 2007 complaint, would like to see Microsoft unilaterally offer the screen worldwide. The chance of that are probably somewhere between "slim" and "none."

Is this only for Windows 7 No. Although the upcoming OS will be the first in line for the ballot under Microsoft's plan, EU users running XP or Vista will also get the screen.

When will Microsoft start offering the ballot screen? Microsoft's proposed schedule would put the ballot in front of Windows 7 users on Oct. 22, the official launch date, or two weeks after the commission accepts the company's deal, 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, assuming they do.

How is Microsoft planning on getting the ballot screen to users? Microsoft will push the ballot screen to Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 machines via Windows Update.

As per the proposal, XP users will receive the screen as a "High Priority" non-security update, while Vista and Windows 7 users will see it pitched as an "Important" update. In all cases, the ballot screen will automatically be downloaded and installed on PCs that have opted for automatic updates through Windows Update. Presumably, that means anyone who has set Windows Update to notify before downloading, or notifying before downloading and installing, will have the option to decline the ballot.

I don't want my entire company getting this ballot; we're standardized on IE. What do I do? Microsoft said it may -- no promises -- "offer tools to volume license users that prevent the Ballot Screen update from being installed on all computers covered by the license."

Microsoft regularly offers specially-crafted toolkits to companies and end users to block the automatic download and installation of prominent updates, including IE and most service packs. There's a chance that Microsoft might do the same here, said sources, rather than limit the toolkit to organizations with volume license agreements.

What happens next? The commission is studying Microsoft's proposal, and according to a statement it issued last week, it "will now investigate its practical effectiveness in terms of ensuring genuine consumer choice."

What that means, and how long that takes is anyone's guess, but sources close to Microsoft said they expected a resolution before the end of October, both because of the launch of Windows 7 that month and because the current Commissioner for Competition, Neelie Kroes, steps down Oct. 31.

Microsoft has offered to provide a 'ballot screen' of browser alternatives to IE for Windows users in the EU.
Microsoft has offered to provide a "ballot screen" of browser alternatives to IE for Windows users in the EU.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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