Microsoft's promise to allow Windows users to choose which Internet browser they use has been accepted by the European Commission, ending its antitrust investigation of the company's position in the browser market.
The company will offer users of Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 a choice screen through which they can pick the browsers they want to install on their PC. The screen will be offered to users in the European Union and some neighboring countries for the next five years via the Windows Update mechanism. In addition, PC manufacturers will be allowed to ship computers with competing Web browsers, as well as or instead of Internet Explorer.
To eliminate bias, the choice screen is presented as a neutral window, not a full Internet Explorer window as Microsoft initially proposed, and the browsers are presented in random, rather than alphabetical, order.
The five most popular browsers -- initially Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Opera -- will be displayed first, while users will be able to scroll the list to pick from seven others, initially AOL, Maxthon, K-Meleon, Flock, Avant Browser, Sleipnir and Slim Browser. The list will be reviewed every six months.
The Commission informed Microsoft of its objections to the company's practice of tying Internet Explorer to its Windows operating systems on Jan. 15. By exploiting its dominant position in the operating system market, Microsoft prevented other software browsers from competing on their merits. The new choice screen will enable such competition, the Commission said Wednesday.
"We hope this closes a long chapter in a sometimes uneasy relationship with the Commission, and we hope it opens a new one," Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said at a news conference in Brussels.
Now that the Commission has accepted Microsoft's proposal, it becomes legally binding. If Microsoft fails to deliver, it could face a fine of up to 10 percent of its worldwide turnover, under E.U. antitrust law. The Commission will review the situation regularly to ensure that the choice screen is achieving the desired result, and may require Microsoft to make changes, it said.
Microsoft has also made some concessions on another complaint filed with the Commission, regarding the information it provides to third-party software developers to enable them to develop products interoperable with those of Microsoft. Without such information, it is difficult for other companies to develop software that collaborates with, or competes with, Microsoft products such as Office or SharePoint.
The Commission has not yet sent a statement of objections, or formal accusation, to Microsoft regarding the interoperability complaint, so the legal process has not begun, and Microsoft's concessions on this point are not legally binding.
Kroes hopes to make a decision "as early in 2010 as possible" either to drop that case or to file a statement of objections, she said Wednesday.
(With additional reporting by Paul Meller in Brussels.)