Microsoft Accused Of Sneaking IE Clones Into Browser Ballot


The EC has forced Microsoft to include other browsers in a ballot screen – but according to critics, several of the alternatives are actually Internet Explorer under the hood

Microsoft has been accused of sneaking its Internet Explorer web browser through the back door, after a web designer found that many of the secondary browsers offered in Microsoft’s “ballot box” are effectively re-packaged versions of IE8.

Microsoft launched its browser ballot box yesterday, allowing millions of Internet users across Europe to select their own default web browser. The decision followed a ruling by the European Commission (EC), which found that Microsoft’s practice of pre-installing Internet Explorer on every new computer was in breach of competition rules.

Under the terms of the agreement, Microsoft offers Windows users a choice of 12 different browsers, ranging from popular browsers such as Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Safari and Chrome, to some less well-known ones, such as Flock, Maxthon and Sleipnir.

Microsoft helping IE sneak in the back door?

In a blog post dated 1 March, web designer and self-proclaimed IE-hater Richard Quick revealed that four of the seven “secondary” browsers offered in Microsoft’s ballot box use Microsoft’s Trident rendering engine – which controls how web pages are laid out.

“When I read the list of browsers the screen was supporting I was surprised that I didn’t recognize many of them,” wrote Quick in a complaint to Commissioner Joaquín Almunia. “I was shocked – though not totally surprised – to find out that out of the 7 secondary browsers, 4 used Microsoft’s Trident rendering engine. This means that they’re essentially rebadged versions of Internet Explorer! Specifically, the following browsers are all based on Trident: Avant, Green Browser, Maxton, Slim.”

The decision to include these browsers is against “both the spirit and possibly the letter of Microsoft’s arrangement with the EU”, said Quick, pointing out that none of the Trident-based browsers has a significant market share, and that better known browsers with a much higher market share are being ignored. “Microsoft appears to be trying to sneak Internet Explorer in by the back door,” he accused.

Microsoft Commitments

Microsoft was unable to give a formal statement in response to eWEEK Europe’s request for information, but a spokesman directed us to a clause in Microsoft’s “Commitments” – which it made together with the EC – defining how the browsers in the ballot box were chosen.

Commitment 14 states that “Other than Internet Explorer, the Choice Screen may not contain any web browser which is based on Internet Explorer’s rendering engine and the development or distribution of which is funded in whole or in substantial part by Microsoft.”

In other words, Microsoft agreed with the EC that no browser which is both based on an Internet Explorer rendering engine – such as Trident – and is also funded by Microsoft could be included in the list. Microsoft acknowledges that there are some other browsers in the browser ballot box that use the Trident engine, but says it is a mistake to label these as “rebadged IE”.

Microsoft was also keen to emphasise that all browser selections were made in conjunction with the EC.

What would Microsoft get out of it?

While there is no indication that Microsoft is directly benefiting from giving precedence to Trident-based browsers, Quick believes that the company is abusing its position of power and is offering users a poor choice, potentially at the expense of Microsoft and Google.

“Whereas Firefox, Chrome, Flock, Opera and Safari can all run independently, Trident-based browsers REQUIRE Internet Explorer to be installed,” explained Quick in an email to eWEEK Europe. “What’s more, the version of Internet Explorer which is installed is the version of the rendering engine the Trident browsers use. So, for example, if I install the ‘latest’ version of Avant, but I have IE6 installed on my computer, then I get to see websites using IE6’s rendering engine. If I’ve got IE8 installed, then when I use Avant, I see websites using IE8’s rendering engine. So, effectively if you use Slim, Green Browser etc you ARE using IE. To my interpretation, they aren’t different browsers, they’re just a skin which sits on top of IE.”

Quick also adds fuel to the rumours that Microsoft’s randomisation process is unfairly skewed towards IE-based browsers. “The randomisation of browsers is done with Javascript,” he explains. “If users have Javascript turned off, IE is first. That will happen to maybe two to three percent of Windows users. Which is a BIG number across the EU. Likewise, if users decide to ‘choose later’ the default choice is assumed to be IE – again, this isn’t a fair assumption on MS’s part.”

“Combined with the Trident-based browsers, this could give a significant weighting to IE and IE-based browsers and a significant bias against Google, Apple, Firefox and Opera,” Quick concludes.

Market share

In his submission to the EC, Quick suggests that Microsoft revises the list to choose the 12 most popular Windows-based web browsers based on market share.

According to web analytics firm Net Applications, Internet Explorer currently has a 63 percent share of the browser market, with Mozilla’s Firefox following in second place with a 24 percent share. Chrome takes third position with five percent, and Safari is fourth with four percent. The complete top-10 list is as follows:

Microsoft Internet Explorer    62.69%
Firefox    24.61%
Chrome    4.63%
Safari    4.46%
Opera    2.40%
Opera Mini    0.53%
Netscape    0.32%
Mozilla    0.13%
ACCESS NetFront    0.05%
Playstation    0.04%

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