What happened to the browser ballot screen?

Long-running Microsoft and EC saga set to finally end


It has run and run, but the saga of the browser ballot screen story might finally be coming to an end – two months after Windows 7 hit the streets.

The EU is set to finally accept Microsoft's ballot screen proposal early next week and each browser will be randomly placed on the ballot screen itself.

Unusually, Microsoft refused to comment to TechRadar about the story, simply saying "Microsoft does not comment on rumour or speculation."

Opera indicated a few days ago that it expected a conclusion to the story around the 15th of the month while EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes previously indicated a deal was likely by the end of the year.

"The Commission will not accept any commitments unless consumers are ensured a real, viable choice," Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd told Reuters, while the New York Times also reported the story.

Solving the browser ballot proposal conundrum is the key to ending the decade-long antitrust issues between Microsoft and the EC that were instigated by Opera's complaint about Microsoft's bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows.

The European Commission's "Statement of Objections" from January first mooted the browser ballot idea "whereby consumers would be shown a 'ballot screen' from which they could – if they wished - easily install competing web browsers, set one of those browsers as a default, and disable Internet Explorer".

The EC didn't want Microsoft to separate Internet Explorer from Windows, because it believed such a move "would not necessarily have achieved greater consumer choice in practice and would not have been an effective remedy".

Back and forth

But despite the EC proposing the browser ballot screen originally, Microsoft threw its toys out of the pram. It announced it would solve the problem of Internet Explorer by shipping special variants of Windows 7 (appended with the letter "E") that would have come without a browser.

Indeed, when Windows 7 went on pre-sale back in the summer, sites like Amazon UK ran advice alongside the sale advising how to get online without a browser being pre-installed.

Eventually, Microsoft were swayed and in July, the European Commission released a statement to "confirm that Microsoft has proposed a consumer ballot screen as a solution to the pending antitrust case about the tying of Microsoft Internet Explorer web browser with Windows."

"Opera Software supports the concept of a ballot screen to give users easy access to better browsers," said Opera CTO Hakon Wium Lie. "The important question is how this ballot screen is implemented."

Microsoft has rejigged its proposal twice and the latest proposal comes after Mozilla, Google and Opera complained about the placement of their browsers on the ballot screen itself.

"The order of the browsers will be randomly presented instead of alphabetically in the original proposal," said Reuters' source.

Opera had also objected to Microsoft's logo being visible elsewhere on the ballot screen as well as any warnings appearing when a non-Microsoft option is chosen.

In August, Mozilla Foundation Chair Mitchell Baker slammed the whole idea of the ballot, saying that Internet Explorer would still have a "unique and uniquely privileged position on Windows installations".

The random-icon solution will probably appease most of the detractors, even though Opera has previously suggested logos should not be used at all because of some people's preconceptions about the blue "e" of Internet Explorer.

"We're not sure about the use of logos," said Opera's Chief Technology Officer, Hakon Wium Lie back at the end of July. "The blue 'e' has become so associated with the internet in general, due to the bundling with Windows. We think using the blue "e" might not be such a good idea."

Coming to 7, Vista and XP

After the EC gave the go-ahead for testing, Microsoft's last official comment on 7 October introduced the proposal: "This proposed measure ensures that PC manufacturers will continue to be able to install any browser on top of Windows and make any browser the default.

"It also ensures that PC manufacturers and users will be able to turn Internet Explorer on and off. And it ensures, that for the next five years in Europe, PC users who are running Internet Explorer as their default browser will receive a ballot screen that will enable them to easily download and install another browser if they would like. This ballot screen will be displayed automatically."

The ballot screen will drip down to Windows 7, Vista and XP users via Windows Update though it seems XP and Vista users will have to wait a little for the ballot screen – Microsoft's July proposal saw it say the roll-out would take place "three to six months" after the final antitrust ruling has taken place.

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