Microsoft's IE 'ballot screen' faces new resistance

Proposal 'will be entirely ineffective,' says trade group as EU tries to wrap up browser antitrust case

Microsoft faces more criticism over the browser "ballot screen" proposal it made to European antitrust regulators, possibly delaying a deal, the Wall Street Journal said Sunday.

According to a story published on the newspaper's Web site, the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), a trade group whose members include Norwegian browser maker Opera Software, argued that the ballot screen concept would confuse users.

In late July, Microsoft said it would give Windows users a chance to download rivals' browsers, as part of its campaign this year to mollify the European Commission, the EU's antitrust agency. The EC filed charges in January 2009 accusing the company of shielding Internet Explorer from competition by bundling it with Windows.

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 would offer links to downloads of Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome and Opera's flagship Opera.

This summer, the commission issued questionnaires to those competitors, as well as to computer makers and others, asking for opinions on the Microsoft proposal.

Although at least one rival browser maker, U.S.-based Mozilla, has said it wanted changes made to Microsoft's proposal, the ECIS is the first to publicly acknowledge it has officially informed the commission of its concerns.

Choosing another browser requires "the user to confirm and answer threatening and confusing warnings and questions," Thomas Vinje, an attorney and spokesman for the ECIS, told the Journal. "Microsoft has cunningly found a way to accept the commission's suggestion of a ballot screen, but to do so in a way that will be entirely ineffective."

Vinje did not reply to a request Sunday for further comment.

Under Microsoft's proposal, Windows 7 users would receive an update starting Oct. 22, the new operating system's official launch date, or two weeks after the commission rules, 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.

In April, the ECIS was granted "interested third party" status in the case, allowing it to obtain the EU's charges against Microsoft and to comment on the action. Previously, both Mozilla, which makes Firefox, and Google, the creator of Chrome, had also been awarded the same status.

Opera Software was already involved in the case; its December 2007 complaint to the commission sparked the antitrust investigation.

The ECIS's criticisms may put the brakes on a deal, which EU officials had hinted last week might be near. Neelie Kroes, head of the EU's antitrust agency, told The New York Times on Sept. 22 that she hoped to "close that dossier," referring to the Microsoft browser case, before her term expires at the end of October. But an early resolution may be hampered by opposition, especially if the ECIS's comments have been echoed by Microsoft's competitors.

For its part, Microsoft remained committed to the position it has staked out since it first offered the ballot screen. "In July, we made a new proposal to address EU competition law issues related to Internet Explorer and interoperability," said Microsoft spokesman Kevin Kutz in an e-mail reply to questions. "The commission welcomed our proposal and announced it would assess its effectiveness. We continue to look forward to the next steps in this process."

While European antitrust officials only have the power to enforce a ballot screen decree in the EU, both Opera and Mozilla have argued that the deal should be extended to Windows users worldwide.

Last month, for example, John Lilly, Mozilla's chief executive, joined Opera in urging just that. "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 at the time. "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."

Representatives of the EU's antitrust agency did not immediately reply to a request for comment early today.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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