Microsoft changes 'ballot screen' to close antitrust case

While rivals want time to study the modifications, EU officials seem eager to accept Microsoft proposal

Microsoft has changed its proposed browser "ballot screen" to wrap up a nine-month antitrust case in the European Union, but rivals remained noncommittal today about whether the modifications are enough.

Three months ago, Microsoft told Brussels-based antitrust officials that it would give users a chance to download rivals' browsers with a "ballot screen," just one of the moves Microsoft has made since January in an effort to ward off fines or even more drastic measures by the European Commission.

Today, the commission said Microsoft had altered some provisions of the ballot screen, and that it would take comments on those changes from consumers, software makers and computer manufacturers until Nov. 9. The comment period is required by EU law.

"We agreed to make a significant number of changes to improve our proposals, and we believe that we've been able to do that," said Brad Smith, Microsoft's chief counsel, in a telephone press conference today.

Opera Software and Google said they were studying the changes.

"Opera Software supports the concept of a ballot screen to give users easy access to better browsers," said Hakon Wium Lie, Opera's chief technology officer in an e-mail today. "The important question is how this ballot screen is implemented. We are still studying the announcement ... and will have further comments at a later stage."

Opera's December 2007 complaint sparked the antitrust action, which the EC filed last January, accusing Microsoft of illegally bundling Internet Explorer (IE) with Windows and therefore shielding it from real competition .

"The proposal to increase consumer choice in browsers has just been made public and we, like many others, will be reviewing it with interest," a Google spokesman added from Brussels today. "The test will be whether people can easily choose the browser they want to use." Google's interest comes from its Chrome browser, one of the 12 that will be offered users.

Opera, Google and Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, have been allowed to see the charges against Microsoft, study the July ballot screen proposal, and suggest changes. Mozilla criticized Microsoft's July idea, with top executives claiming that it favored IE and failed to install other browsers. Opera, meanwhile, called on Microsoft to offer the ballot screen to all customers, even though Microsoft is legally obligated to offer it only to EU Windows users.

Microsoft's revised ballot screen proposal addresses several concerns of those rivals.

According to the documentation ( download PDF ) released by the commission today, the "Install" link offered for the choices will not only download the selected browser -- which is what Microsoft had proposed before -- but will also install the application on the user's machine.

"An 'install' link will connect to a vendor-managed distribution server, which, upon the user's confirmation, can directly download the installation package of the selected web browser for local execution & the resulting situation will therefore equal a scenario in which the user himself had downloaded and executed the installation package without being aided by the Ballot Screen," said Microsoft's new proposal.

The ballot screen will also display the choices -- Apple's Safari, Chrome, IE, Firefox and Opera on the first screen, an additional seven on a second -- in alphabetical order by the name of the browser maker -- a change from before, when Microsoft had placed IE in the first spot on the far left based on its market share.

Other changes include a new screen that will provide some basic information about browsers, and remind users that they should be connected to the Internet before they proceed.

Microsoft also modified the timing of the ballot screen, which will be delivered to Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 users via Windows Update. Previously, Microsoft said it would push the ballot screen to Windows 7 owners on Oct. 22, or within two weeks of approval of the deal, then follow that three to six months later for Windows XP and Vista users.

Instead, Microsoft has agreed to start offering the ballot screen to all Windows users eight weeks after EU antitrust officials sign off on the proposal.

For its part, the EU seems satisfied with the revised ballot screen. "We believe this is an answer," said commission chief Neelie Kroes in a press conference today in Brussels. She also indicated that it was likely the commission would accept Microsoft's ballot screen revisions. "At the end of the day that's what we are looking for," she added.

Even so, Kroes acknowledged that the revamped proposal may not make everyone happy. "A number of people are never 100 percent satisfied," she said.

Microsoft was "very pleased" with the EU's decision to move into the last month of the case, Smith said in his press conference. "We welcome the announcement by the European Commission to move forward with formal market testing of Microsoft's proposal relating to Web browser choice," he said.

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Gregg Keizer

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