Trade group proposes a 'fair' browser ballot screen for Windows

A group of Microsoft Corp. rivals has demonstrated to European Union antitrust regulators a browser ballot screen that they say would be fairer than the one Microsoft proposed.

The ballot screen will allow Windows users to choose a browser for their PC as settlement of an antitrust case that forbids Microsoft from tying its Internet Explorer browser with its Windows operating system.

The new ballot screen demonstrated by the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS) runs as a separate application, rather than as a page within Internet Explorer like the one Microsoft proposed. ECIS is one of a number of organizations that have the status of interested third parties, allowing them to play a role in the European Commission's antitrust action against Microsoft.

"Our programmer made this app in two days. It was his first C# (sharp) application," said Ashwin van Rooijen, an associate at law firm Clifford Chance, which represents the ECIS in the case. The native Windows application is made to overcome hurdles that Microsoft's competitors see in the ballot screen that the Windows maker has proposed.

Microsoft's current proposal has some limitations, Van Rooijen told Dutch publication Webwereld. "IE is still bundled with Windows; it's still built in. Even when the user chooses a different browser to be the default. Also, that alternative browser needs to be downloaded."

"That could be acceptable, were it not for the fact that Microsoft's ballot screen is in Internet Explorer," he said.

The situation was visible in the screenshot that accompanied Microsoft's proposal back in July. Microsoft's proposed ballot screen will also be delivered to Windows XP and Vista users through Windows Update, if the commission accepts the proposal.

A bigger problem for Microsoft's competitors is the working of the proposed ballot screen: It is simply a local homepage that contains links to download locations for other browsers, which affect the ballot's usability.

"Each and every download in IE brings up a warning screen. Installing an application gives the user another warning. Those are hurdles for alternative browsers, hurdles that do not apply for IE," Van Rooijen said.

ECIS has filed this complaint with the E.U. antitrust regulators. Rival browser makers Mozilla and Opera Software have protested the download-and-install process that would be required for their browsers by Microsoft's ballot screen.

"I have some experience programming in C++ so I can navigate through such a ballot screen, but my mother can't," said Van Rooijen, pointing to the difference between a technical PC user and the average consumer, who may be repelled by a warning screen.

Those problems prompted the ECIS to make its own browser ballot screen and demonstrate it to E.U. antitrust regulators. The ECIS ballot is a native Windows application that does not confront users with warning screens, and instead performs an integrity check on the setup file of the chosen browser which will be downloaded by the ballot application.

"Microsoft has stated that such an application is not doable on short notice, that it would take nine months to develop it," said Van Rooijen. It is not the intention of the ECIS to offer the ballot application as a download itself, he emphasized. Instead, it should be distributed through Microsoft's Windows Update mechanism. "The goal of this exercise is to make the choice for alternative browsers as easy as possible."

ECIS is not seeking the bundling of the alternative browsers. Linking to the latest download version is the best solution, Van Rooijen said, for reasons of accountability and security, because of the risk to PC vendors of bundling outdated browsers, Van Rooijen said.

Microsoft had brought up similar objections to a browser ballot screen when it became clear that the E.U. would impose a remedy that would force Microsoft to implement one. The Windows software maker argued on behalf of PC manufacturers that such a remedy would harm their businesses.

The ECIS complaint formalizes earlier criticism brought by Mozilla and Opera. It also covered the lingering presence of IE in Windows.

"IE still has a unique and very privileged presence on Windows PCs," wrote Mozilla chairwoman Mitchell Baker on her blog. She claimed that icons for the Microsoft browser would still be prominently visible for the Windows user, regardless of any browser choice.

Mozilla also complained about the difficult process for end users to switch browsers. The proposed Microsoft ballot screen offers links to Web sites where consumers could download the alternative browser. After saving, they would need to install the browser themselves, which is another process. Doing nothing however, also gives the end user a browser: the market-dominating Internet Explorer. So the Firefox maker also fears inertia on the part of the consumer.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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