Microsoft's EU Browser Choice Screen Faces Commission Petition

Microsoft found itself facing a formal petition from a consortium of smaller Web browsers, who are arguing to the European Commission that Microsoft's "Web browser choice screen" for European users of Windows is fundamentally unfair. The Web browser choice screen was designed to sidestep the EC's antitrust concerns over Microsoft including Internet Explorer with Windows, by offering European users an automatically downloaded window that offers a variety of browsers for downloading. The smaller browsers want layout changes to the screen that they say would give them a better chance to be considered by users.

Microsoft faces a new issue in its long-running dispute with the European Commission over the bundling of Internet Explorer 8 in copies of Windows. Although Microsoft introduced a "Web browser choice screen" March 1 that was supposed to avert those bundling concerns by presenting European users with a randomized list of browsers, the smaller browser vendors featured on that choice screen formally registered a petition with the EC March 3.

That petition protests that the browser ballot screen has been structured unfairly, with the smaller browsers viewable only if the user scrolls sideways. Browsers with larger market share, such as Apple's Safari, Google Chrome, IE 8 and Mozilla Firefox, are present front-and-center on the screen.

Microsoft is offering the ballot screen as an automatic download for European users of Windows 7, XP and Vista. Since the rollout began, at least some of the browsers have experienced an uptick in European market share; Opera Software, for example, reported that downloads had more than tripled in major European countries, including Belgium, France, Spain, Poland and the United Kingdom.

But the smaller browser vendors have nonetheless registered formal protest with the EC,, the European Union's antitrust regulatory body.

"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, reads the statement issued by the smaller browser vendors, which was signed by representatives from Maxthon, SlimBrowser, Avant Force, Flock, Sleipnir, and GreenBrowser. "This is inconsistent with the EU Commissions' 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.'"

The statement emphasizes that the smaller browser owners want only minor changes to the feature's design.

"Please know that we are not suggesting any major reevaluation or redesign of the Choice Screen at this time," it continues, in bold-faced type for emphasis. "We are only requesting the simple addition of any text or design element that would indicate to an average user that there are choices 'to the right of the visible screen.'"

Elements suggested include text on the upper or lower right of the ballot box indicating the presence of additional browsers to the right; a graphical element such as an arrow; or a chance to the screen's title text.

The consortium of smaller browser vendors estimates that some 192 million PCs will receive the ballot screen as part of an automatic update by the end of April. "Therefore, moving quickly to resolve this matter is essential in helping European users discover and consider the full range of browsers as the Commission intended."

In a March 2 conversation with eWEEK, Flock CEO Shawn Hardin suggested the importance of the ballot screen's design to the smaller browsers. "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."

Microsoft, meanwhile, indicated to eWEEK that the ballot screen ultimately reflected the EC's thought process.

"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 e-mail. "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."

The EC's decision, released Dec. 16, 2009, and viewable here, includes a number of paragraphs that detail 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, "Prominently displaying five Web browsers and seven more when the user scrolls sideways reflects the market situation."

However, now the proverbial ball is back in the Commission's court.