Microsoft will be asked by representatives from seven smaller Web browser makers to alter its Web browser choice screen, which was designed to assuage European antitrust concerns about bundling Internet Explorer with Windows by offering users an automatically downloaded window with several browser options. A report from a March 8 meeting suggests that the European Commission encouraged the smaller browser makers to engage with Microsoft over the issue. While Microsoft has already introduced more randomization into the placement of the larger browsers on the ballot screen, these smaller companies want changes that will give their products a better chance at front-and-center positioning.
Microsoft faces another request from seven browser companies to alter its
"Web browser choice screen" for European users of Windows. Originally
introduced on March 1 to sidestep concerns from the European Commission, the
EU's antitrust regulatory body, about the bundling of Internet Explorer 8 with
copies of Windows, the ballot screen allows EU users to choose from a
randomized list of browsers including Apple's Safari, Google Chrome and Mozilla
In addition to those more prominent browsers, the ballot screen allows users
to select from browsers including those offered by Maxthon, SlimBrowser, Avant
Force, Flock, Sleipnir and GreenBrowser. Representatives from those smaller companies
had registered a formal petition with the EC on March 3, protesting that the
screen was structured unfairly, with smaller browsers viewable only if the user
scrolls sideways; now, representatives from those browsers apparently want
Microsoft to introduce even more randomization into the ballot screen, so that
their products appear as prominently as those of larger companies.
"It is clear that the final Choice Screen design leaves the vast
majority of users unaware that there are more than five browsers to choose
from," read the March 3 petition. "This is inconsistent with the EU
Commission's stated goal for the Choice Screen-to provide European consumers
with 'information on the 12 most widely used Web browsers and to allow users to
easily download and install one or more of these Web browsers.'"
Microsoft reportedly introduced an algorithm after March 1 that introduced
more randomization into the order of the first five browsers on the ballot
screen. That did little for seven of the smaller browsers, whose
representatives met with several EC commissioners on March 3. In that meeting, reportedly,
those commissioners reiterated a commitment to providing European users with
full access to the 12 browsers represented across the entirety of the browser
"The EC recommended that the seven browser companies engage with
Microsoft as a group, and if they can come to a mutually agreed-upon solution,
the EC will fully support it," a spokesperson for Flock told eWEEK on
March 10. "Flock CEO Shawn Hardin has
reached out to Microsoft on behalf of the group to schedule a meeting, and
Microsoft responded that they 'will get back to the group shortly.'"
That spokesperson described staff from the seven browsers as
"cautiously optimistic" but aware of the time sensitivity of the
issue, as the browser ballot screen is scheduled to automatically download onto
nearly 200 million computers within the next three months.
Representatives from the EC did not return eWEEK's request for comment.
Microsoft uniformly declined to answer eWEEK's questions relating to
specifics about the browser ballot screen, instead issuing a statement through
a spokesperson: "We can confirm that we made a change to the random icon
order algorithm in the browser choice screen for Europe.
We are confident the algorithm change will be an improvement. As always, we are
grateful for the feedback we get from developers, and we thank those who
commented on the topic and suggested changes."
If the account of the meeting between the EC and the smaller browser makers
is accurate, it introduces a new wrinkle into the already-complicated dynamics
between Microsoft, its competitors and European regulators. In an earlier
e-mail to eWEEK, Microsoft insisted that the EC was the ultimate arbiter of the
browser ballot screen.
"The reality is that Microsoft cannot make changes unilaterally to a
browser choice screen that follows considerable industry comment and Commission
consideration of the specific balance between vendors with large market share
and those with very small market share," Kevin Kutz, Microsoft's director
of public affairs, wrote in a March 2 note. "The final version of the
browser choice screen reflects the Commission's strong point of view about
striking the right balance as they saw it."
pointed to the EC's formal decision on the matter, released Dec. 16, 2009, and
inclusive of a number of paragraphs detailing the reasoning behind the ballot
screen's current configuration.
"If the choice screen presented too many Web browsers," the
document reads in its Procedural Steps Under Regulation section, "users
could be overwhelmed and as a consequence would be more likely not to exercise
a choice at all, but rather to dismiss the entire choice screen." In
addition, it adds: "Prominently displaying the five Web browsers and seven
more when the user scrolls sideways reflects the current market
But the Flock spokesperson's narrative of the EC meeting makes it appear as
if Microsoft has a continuing ability to affect the process, something also
indicated by the company's introduction of extra randomization into the current
browser ballot screen.
For the smaller browsers, the ultimate configuration of the browser ballot
screen is a matter of, if not survival, certainly their ability to compete in a
robust manner. In a March 2 conversation with eWEEK, Flock CEO
Shawn Hardin said, "We can't compete with the sort of money that the top
guys have, so this choice screen is enormously important. And it's just
enormously disappointing that it happened this way."
Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.