Microsoft Will Be Challenged by Google, Opera, Mozilla on EU Settlement

Microsoft and the European Commission may be close to a deal on packaging Internet Explorer 8 with Windows 7, with Redmond agreeing to offer users an automatic "ballot screen" from which they can choose a rival browser. Such an agreement would alleviate the Commission's antitrust concerns, but Google, Opera and Mozilla plan on asking the regulatory body for as-yet-unannounced changes to the agreement.

Microsoft may not quite be out of the woods yet with regard to its antitrust dealings with the European Commission, the regulatory body that investigates possible violations of European Union antitrust rules. Although Redmond and the regulatory body seem close to a deal over the integration of Internet Explorer 8 into Windows 7, some of Microsoft's chief rivals will apparently ask the commission to change some details of the settlement.

Mozilla, Opera and Google all plan on asking the Commission for last-minute changes, according to a report published in The New York Times. The newspaper quoted Hakon Wium Lie, Opera's chief technology officer, as saying: "We hope the commission is open to fixing the remedy. ... I don't think we are going to get another chance."

After months of suggesting that Windows 7 would ship in Europe without Internet Explorer, in response to antitrust concerns from the commission, Microsoft reversed course in August and proposed an automatic "ballot screen" that would allow users to select between IE 8 and a competing Web browser. That unilateral move was undertaken despite an inherent risk of rejection by the commission.

It remains to be seen what sort of changes Mozilla, Opera and Google will suggest to the commission about the ballot screen. In subtext, the three companies seem to want to prevent Microsoft from making an unimpeded deal that could somehow disadvantage them later on.

Microsoft's months of negotiations with the European Commission over incorporating Internet Explorer 8 into Windows 7 seemed to come to a head on Oct. 7, when both Redmond and the European Commission issued statements suggesting that all relevant issues could be settled by the end of 2009.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal at the time, Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said she was "very hopeful" about a resolution during a press conference in Brussels, and that she had spoken with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

"The Commission's concern has been that PC users should have an effective and unbiased choice between Internet Explorer and competing Web browsers," the commission wrote in an Oct. 7 statement. "The Commission's preliminary view is that Microsoft's commitments would address these competition concerns and is market testing Microsoft's proposal in light of these requirements."

In Microsoft's sample mockup of the ballot screen, those rival browsers were given an equal amount of on-screen space alongside IE 8. Microsoft also suggested that it would give equivalent placement on Windows 7's taskbar for Internet Explorer and other browser icons.

"We welcome today's announcement by the European Commission to move forward with formal market testing of Microsoft's proposal relating to Web browser choice in Europe," Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, wrote in an Oct. 7 statement. "We also welcome the opportunity to take the next step in the process regarding our proposal to promote interoperability with a broad range of our products."

The commission had wanted other IT firms to have access to technical specifications that would allow them to build products that worked well with Microsoft products, and to have that access offered at royalty rates "based on the inherent value of the technology disclosed." Microsoft has claimed that it will implement this in full.

In an interview later in October, Opera's CEO suggested that the ballot screen was a step in the right direction.

"It's good for consumers if there's a choice of browsers and they will look at the ballot screen solution," Jon Tetzschner, CEO of Opera, told eWEEK. "And if users are provided with a choice of ballots, I think that's very good. That's what we had hoped for. There are elements in this that we think could have been done better, but we'll communicate that to the commission instead."

During that interview, Tetzschner expressed reservations about placing the browser options in alphabetical order on the ballot screen, and gave some hints about what the organization might suggest to the commission next week.

"Our thinking is that it would be best to have a random solution, that basically when it comes down to the different browsers that are shown in the screen that no particular order will be followed," Tetzschner said. "I think that's the fairest solution but, again, we'll leave it to the commission to come up with a good solution."