Microsoft To Offer Windows Browser Choice

Microsoft is to start offering Windows users a ballot box in which they can choose their default browser, following a ruling by the EC

Microsoft will begin asking millions of Internet users across Europe to choose their default web browser from today. The decision follows 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, announced on 16 December, Microsoft will install an automatic “ballot screen” that will let Windows users choose between 12 different browsers. These will range from popular browsers such as Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Safari and Chrome, to some less well-known ones, such as Flock, Maxthon and Sleipnir.

The ballot box, entitled “An important choice to make: your browser”, will be offered to Windows users running XP, Vista and Windows 7 via an automatic software update. According to Microsoft, the list of browsers will appear in random order, along with information outlining their key features, and a download button for each browser. Users who already run a different default browser will not be shown the box.

“Millions of European consumers will benefit from this decision by having a free choice about which web browser they use,” said Neelie Kroes, the EU’s competition commissioner, back in December. “Such choice will not only serve to improve people’s experience of the Internet now but also act as an incentive for web browser companies to innovate and offer people better browsers in the future.”

However, some doubts have already been cast over the “randomness” of the Windows browser ballot. The ballot box shows the five leading web browsers at the top of the page, with the selection of more minor browsers available if users scroll to the right. Some bloggers have pointed out that Internet Explorer appears most frequently in fifth position, sparking theories that Microsoft has rigged the ballot, in the knowledge that users are more likely to click on the option on the right-side of the screen.

“The browser choice screen requires what we call a ‘random shuffle’. You start with an array of values and return those same values, but in a randomized order. This computational problem has been known since the earliest days of computing,” wrote IBM’s Rob Weir in a blog post. “There are 4 well-known approaches: 2 good solutions, 1 acceptable (“good enough”) solution that is slower than necessary and 1 bad approach that doesn’t really work. Microsoft appears to have picked the bad approach.”

The anti-trust issues of Microsoft shipping computers with Internet Explorer pre-installed were first raised by Opera Software in 2009. The EC originally suggested that Windows would have to ship in Europe without any browser installed, but this was soon ruled out as impractical. Microsoft then suggested in August that it would install the ballot screen, allowing choice between IE 8 and rival browsers.

“It’s been fairly clear that Microsoft has been violating antitrust law for a very, very, very, very long time,” said Opera boss Jon Tetzchner in October. “If users are provided with a choice of ballots, I think that’s very good. That’s what we had hoped for … But I think this is something that will also help forward open standards.”

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.