Microsoft Ballot Screen ‘Inconsistent’ With EC Goals


Seven smaller web browser makers have asked Microsoft to alter its EU browser ballot screen to give their products equal billing

Microsoft faces another request from seven browser companies to alter its “web browser choice screen” for European users of Windows. Originally introduced on 1 March to sidestep concerns from the European Commission – the EU’s antitrust regulatory body – about the bundling of Internet Explorer 8 with copies of Windows, the ballot screen allows EU users to choose from a randomised list of browsers including Apple’s Safari, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.

In addition to those more prominent browsers, the ballot screen allows users to select from browsers including those offered by Maxthon, SlimBrowser, Avant Force, Flock, Sleipnir and GreenBrowser. Representatives from those smaller companies had registered a formal petition with the EC on 3 March, protesting that the screen was structured unfairly, with smaller browsers viewable only if the user scrolls sideways; now, representatives from those browsers apparently want Microsoft to introduce even more randomisation into the ballot screen, so that their products appear as prominently as those of larger companies.

“It is clear that the final Choice Screen design leaves the vast majority of users unaware that there are more than five browsers to choose from,” read the March 3 petition. “This is inconsistent with the EU Commission’s stated goal for the Choice Screen—to provide European consumers with ‘information on the 12 most widely used web browsers and to allow users to easily download and install one or more of these web browsers.'”

Microsoft reportedly introduced an algorithm after 1 March that introduced more randomisation into the order of the first five browsers on the ballot screen. That did little for seven of the smaller browsers, whose representatives met with several EC commissioners on 3 March. In that meeting, reportedly, those commissioners reiterated a commitment to providing European users with full access to the 12 browsers represented across the entirety of the browser ballot screen.

“The EC recommended that the seven browser companies engage with Microsoft as a group, and if they can come to a mutually agreed-upon solution, the EC will fully support it,” a spokesperson for Flock told eWEEK on March 10. “Flock CEO Shawn Hardin has reached out to Microsoft on behalf of the group to schedule a meeting, and Microsoft responded that they ‘will get back to the group shortly.'”

That spokesperson described staff from the seven browsers as “cautiously optimistic” but aware of the time sensitivity of the issue, as the browser ballot screen is scheduled to automatically download onto nearly 200 million computers within the next three months.

Representatives from the EC did not return eWEEK’s request for comment.

Microsoft uniformly declined to answer eWEEK’s questions relating to specifics about the browser ballot screen, instead issuing a statement through a spokesperson: “We can confirm that we made a change to the random icon order algorithm in the browser choice screen for Europe. We are confident the algorithm change will be an improvement. As always, we are grateful for the feedback we get from developers, and we thank those who commented on the topic and suggested changes.”

If the account of the meeting between the EC and the smaller browser makers is accurate, it introduces a new wrinkle into the already-complicated dynamics between Microsoft, its competitors and European regulators. In an earlier email to eWEEK, Microsoft insisted that the EC was the ultimate arbiter of the browser ballot screen.

“The reality is that Microsoft cannot make changes unilaterally to a browser choice screen that follows considerable industry comment and Commission consideration of the specific balance between vendors with large market share and those with very small market share,” Kevin Kutz, Microsoft’s director of public affairs, wrote in a 2 March note. “The final version of the browser choice screen reflects the Commission’s strong point of view about striking the right balance as they saw it.”

Kutz pointed to the EC’s formal decision on the matter, released 16 December 2009, and inclusive of a number of paragraphs detailing the reasoning behind the ballot screen’s current configuration.

“If the choice screen presented too many web browsers,” the document reads in its Procedural Steps Under Regulation section, “users could be overwhelmed and as a consequence would be more likely not to exercise a choice at all, but rather to dismiss the entire choice screen.” In addition, it adds: “Prominently displaying the five web browsers and seven more when the user scrolls sideways reflects the current market situation.”

But the Flock spokesperson’s narrative of the EC meeting makes it appear as if Microsoft has a continuing ability to affect the process, something also indicated by the company’s introduction of extra randomisation into the current browser ballot screen.

For the smaller browsers, the ultimate configuration of the browser ballot screen is a matter of, if not survival, certainly their ability to compete in a robust manner. In a 2 March conversation with eWEEK, Flock CEO Shawn Hardin said, “We can’t compete with the sort of money that the top guys have, so this choice screen is enormously important. And it’s just enormously disappointing that it happened this way.”

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