Microsoft's EU Browser Choice Screen Protested by Smaller Browser Vendors

Microsoft rolled out March 1 its "Web browser choice screen," which presents a randomized list of popular browsers for European users of Windows. At least one smaller browser vendor, however, is protesting that the current structure of the ballot screen gives an unfair advantage to larger browsers such as Internet Explorer and Opera. Microsoft counters that the European Commission, the EU's antitrust-regulatory body, is the ultimate endorser of how the ballot screen looks and operates.

Microsoft's March 1 introduction of "Web browser choice screen," which presents European users of Windows with a randomized list of popular browsers from which to choose in addition to Internet Explorer, is already having an effect in Europe. Opera has reported triple the number of downloads in larger European countries, but smaller browsers may protest to the European Commission, Europe's antitrust regulatory body, about what they perceive as unfairness in how the browser ballot screen is structured.

The browser ballot screen was originally instituted to short-circuit concerns from the European Commission about any monopolistic implications of Internet Explorer 8 being bundled with Windows 7, Microsoft's bestselling operating system. The solution, proposed by Microsoft in late 2009 and approved by the Commission after input by competitors such as Opera, is a screen that lets users choose from Safari, Google Chrome, Internet Explorer 8, Mozilla Firefox, Opera Browser, FlashPeak SlimBrowser, K-Meleon, Avant Browser, Flock, Sleipnir, GreenBrowser and Maxton.

The browsers with larger market share are presented on the opening windows, while the smaller ones are viewable only if the user scrolls sideways. A Web version of the ballot screen, which is offered as an automatic download for users of Windows 7, XP and Vista, can be found here. The European Commission expected that more than 100 million PCs in Europe will encounter the screen by mid-May.

But at least some of the smaller browser vendors seem to have concerns about the ballot screen.

"Horizontal scrolling is non-standard," Shawn Hardin, CEO of Flock, said in a March 2 interview with eWEEK. "The only thing over which we're raising our hand, along with the other browsers not on the main screen, is we agree there's a clear and fundamental design problem here which could be solved in a second." Such a solution, he added, could involve adding a small arrow or text indicating that users could scroll to the right for more browser options.

"As we engaged with Microsoft, we assumed there would be some opportunity to see the final thing, and say that it was good to go, but we only saw it seven days ago," 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."

Hardin indicated that he and other, smaller browser vendors will bring their concerns to the Commission. "We have been in contact with Microsoft," he claimed, "and unfortunately Microsoft has indicated a lack of interest."

Microsoft has a different take on the situation.

"While it's true there were two public comment periods last year when the specific proposed UI was posted," Kevin Kutz, Microsoft's director of public affairs, wrote in a March 2 e-mail to eWEEK, "which was the time to bring concerns to the Commission, 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."

With that in mind, Kutz continued, "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." Those browsers with smaller market share, he suggested, should express their concerns to the European Commission.

Kutz pointed to the original text of the European Commission's decision, which was released Dec. 16, 2009, and specifically two paragraphs that set guidelines for the browser ballot screen's design.

Those paragraphs, numbered 81 and 82 in the document's "Procedural Steps Under Regulation" section, suggest, "If the choice screen presented too many Web browsers, 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," and, "Prominently displaying five Web browsers and seven more when the user scrolls sideways reflects the market situation."

Paragraphs 82, 83 and 84 break down how market share reflects the placement of browsers on the ballot screen. The whole decision can be found in PDF form here.

For browsers with larger market share, such as Opera, the effects of the browser screen have been immediate. "Since the browser choice screen rollout, Opera downloads have more than tripled in major European countries, such as Belgium, France, Spain, Poland and the UK," Rolf Assev, Opera's chief strategy officer, told Reuters in a March 3 article.

Editor's Note: A correction was made to the versions of Windows for which the ballot screen is available.