Microsoft To Offer Browser Ballot, Caves to EU Pressure

The browser saga between Microsoft, the EU, and various browser makers just got a new chapter. We all know how the EU and Microsoft are in a legal tussle over the inclusion of Internet Explorer with Windows. Microsoft surprised everyone in June by announcing that Windows 7 would ship without Internet Explorer in Europe, a move it had hoped would silence the EU. The EU and Opera, however, were not impressed, and now Microsoft has caved in to the pressure.

In a statement from the European Commission, the Commission confirms that Microsoft has proposed a browser ballot to be included in Windows which would allow users to pick a browser from a pre-determined list. This was the method preferred by the European Commmission to restore browser competition in the marketplace. Under this preferred method, Internet Explorer would ship with Windows, but a browser ballot screen would be included so that users can choose a browser.

Under the proposal, Windows 7 would include Internet Explorer, but the proposal recognises the principle that consumers should be given a free and effective choice of web browser, and sets out a means – the ballot screen – by which Microsoft believes that can be achieved. In addition OEMs would be able to install competing web browsers, set those as default and disable Internet Explorer should they so wish. The Commission welcomes this proposal, and will now investigate its practical effectiveness in terms of ensuring genuine consumer choice.

We’ve discussed this possible “solution” before on OSNews, and my opinion on it is unchanged: it’s a silly and pointless “solution” that solves absolutely nothing, and only serves as a cheap means for other browser makers to get their browsers on people’s machines. As Mozilla has clearly shown over the past few years, people are more than willing to change browsers, as long as you make a product that they want. Mozilla did the hard work to get people to rethink their choice of browsers and switch to Firefox, and now other browser makers – Opera in particular – are trying to leech off Mozilla’s hard work.

On top of that, who determines which browsers will be available on the list? Opera, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer will be on there, surely. But what about future newcomers? Doesn’t this list just create an unfair advantage for the aforementioned browsers? And what about other, smaller browsers that exist today? How do they get on the list? Won’t it make it even harder for those to compete with The Chosen Ones on The List?

Then there’s the more practical issue Kroc pointed out to me once: how are users going to know what browser they like just by looking at a few options in a dialog? They’re just going to pick what they’re familiar with anyway, with the end result being most users picking Internet Explorer and Firefox.

This raises the question: what would be a good solution? Clearly, shipping Windows without a browser is not a very good option, nor is the ballot screen. We could, of course, like, let the market continue to evolve. As we’ve seen over the past few years, the popularity of Internet Explorer has decreased dramatically, with some European countries seeing close to 50% of their people using Firefox to browse the web. What this shows us is that the market is pretty healthy – although there are still areas where IE reigns supreme, such as within corporate networks.

If the European Commission really has a big urge to regulate away, why not regulate where it matters: web standards. Use that big regulatory Brussels magic wand to force Microsoft to be more standards compliant. That would actually be helpful to all of us.

Only one question remains: why the sudden change of heart by Microsoft? Ars speculates that Microsoft’s financial results have something to do with it. The legal tussle with the EU probably isn’t a cheap one, and cost-cutting is the favourite activity of Microsoft executives right now. They obviously also want to prevent a delay in shipping Windows 7 in Europe.

Sadly, the EU announcement has no timetable, so we don’t know when the ballot would be implemented. More to come, I’m sure.


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