Mozilla execs want changes to Microsoft's 'ballot screen' proposal

They're concerned about Windows Update, download process, Office links

Mozilla executives today began a concerted campaign to prod European Union (EU) antitrust regulators to demand more from Microsoft than the browser "ballot screen" Windows will offer users later this year.

Both Mitchell Baker, the former CEO of Mozilla and the chairwoman of Mozilla Foundation, and Harvey Anderson, Mozilla's chief counsel, posted lengthy blogs, citing concerns with Microsoft's proposal and spelling out changes they want to see.

John Lilly, Mozilla's current CEO, confirmed that the messages from Mitchell and Anderson were part of a company-wide plan. "It's part of our effort to get across our point of view," he said in an interview. "In principle, [Microsoft's proposal] sounds good, but in practice, the way they implement it will make a big difference."

Mozilla's top executives were reacting to a proposal Microsoft submitted July 24, when it told Brussels-based antitrust officials that it would give Windows users a chance to download rivals' browsers.

A key part of that plan would be a "ballot screen" that EU Windows users would see if IE was set as the default browser. Under Microsoft's proposal, the ballot will offer links to downloads of Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome and Opera Software's Opera.

In January 2009, the European Commission filed charges against Microsoft, accusing the company of shielding IE from competition by including it with Windows. Since then, Microsoft has made several moves, including offering a "kill switch" in Windows 7 that lets users disable IE, to fend off fines and even tougher antitrust actions against its software.

The commission's charges stemmed from a December 2007 complaint filed by Norwegian browser maker Opera.

Today, Baker, who has been blogging regularly on the topic since January, argued that if the proposal is accepted, IE will still enjoy most-favored-browser status.

"Even if everything in the currently proposed settlement is implemented in the most positive way, IE will still have a unique and uniquely privileged position on Windows installations," Baker said. She listed several aspects of the proposal that trouble Mozilla, including IE's continued prominence on the desktop, the unfair advantage IE would have even if other browsers can be downloaded, and the possibility that Microsoft might try to convince users to switch back to IE through manipulation of Windows Update, the operating system's default update service.

"The importance of the myriad of details makes it very difficult to predict how effective the proposed remedies will be, or the extent of any side-effects," Baker said.

While Baker used broader strokes to paint the proposal as unclear at best, unfair at worst, Anderson got down to specifics. Among his concerns: Windows Update; IE's ties with other Microsoft software, particularly Office; the download conundrum competitors face; and Microsoft's plan not to eliminate IE if the user chooses an alternative.

On the Windows Update front, Anderson countered with an idea of Mozilla's own. "The proposal should be modified to expressly state that Microsoft cannot use Windows Update to trigger any 'Make IE the default' consideration unless the user launched IE intentionally and not just as a requirement of another process," he said, fearing that Microsoft would unfairly leverage the update service.

Anderson also questioned the download link part of the proposed ballot screen. Saying that a link was "insufficient," and citing Mozilla data that claims only about 55% of its users who click a download link actually complete the installation process, he said the link should trigger both a download of the alternate browser and its installation. He also called on the commission to make Microsoft add a launch of the browser maker's instruction page to the process.

"Obviously this & will take some thinking, and to make it really work, we would strongly recommend that the proposal include a Microsoft commitment to work with browser vendors directly in an informal group, including the commission, so the ballot implementation can be informed by the knowledge and experience of other browser providers," Anderson urged.

Both Microsoft and the commission have been mum about the chances the latter will accept the former's proposal. Two weeks ago, however, Microsoft was confident enough that the commission would take the deal that it abandoned plans to ship Windows 7 without IE to EU customers. That idea, which Microsoft had first floated in early June, would have shipped the new operating system this fall sans IE. Computer makers were expected to pre-load one or more browsers onto new PCs, while users upgrading would face the tough task of getting a browser without the means to reach the Internet.

"I wouldn't know how to handicap it," said Mozilla's Lilly today when asked whether he thinks EU acceptance of Microsoft's proposal is likely.

Lilly acknowledged that Mozilla, which was granted "interested third-party" status to the antitrust case last spring, has not submitted its concerns to the commission. "We've been in contact with the commission all along, but we haven't communicated these to them yet," Lilly said.

He also echoed comments first expressed by Opera last month, when that company's chief technology officer called on Microsoft to extend the ballot concept worldwide. "My hope is that whether or not the commission and Microsoft decide to revise the proposal, that Microsoft will take [our concerns] to heart," Lilly said. "It's all about what makes it best for the users, so hopefully Microsoft will take that into account and do this not just in the EU, but that it starts to look like this across the world."

EU regulators have not set a timetable for a final decision on Microsoft's proposal, but sources close to Microsoft have said they expect 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.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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