EC Opens Comments on Microsoft Browser 'Ballot'

The European Commission (EC) on Wednesday took another step closer to resolving its Web browser competition complaint against Microsoft.

The Commission is inviting formal public comments on a Microsoft proposal that aims at broadening browser choice among consumers who use Windows in the European Economic Area. The EC plans to publish a "market test notice" of Microsoft's plan in the EU's Official Journal on October 9. At that point, consumers and any other interested parties will have one month to present their comments on the plan.

As of Oct. 7, the EC just listed preliminary nonofficial versions of the market test notice and proposed commitments. They can be accessed at the EC's Web site here.

To broaden consumer access, Microsoft is proposing the use of a so-called "ballot screen" Web page that will present a list of the top 12 browsers for download. The ballot screen will appear for users of Windows-based PCs and it will only appear if the user has Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) configured as the default browser. Microsoft's Windows Update service will be used to send the code that will launch the ballot screen, according to Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and senior vice president, in a press conference.

This method of offering PC users a choice of browsers will be in effect for five years, according to Microsoft's proposal. Microsoft issued the proposal in the first place to address the EC's "Statement of Objections" complaint, filed in January, which determined that Microsoft was using its Windows operating system monopoly to distribute IE and dominate the European browser market. The European Union considers such product bundling to be illegal under its competition laws.

The ballot screen will show the top five browsers to the end user in alphabetical order by vendor name, so Internet Explorer won't necessarily be first. After that, the next seven most popular browsers will be listed alphabetically by vendor name, according to Microsoft's proposal.

PC manufacturers can still install the browser of their choice on new PCs, according to the proposal. Microsoft is claiming that it won't retaliate against PC makers should IE not be the default installed browser. In addition, PC manufacturers and end users will have the ability to turn IE on or off.

The Commission's acceptance of the market test represents "a big step forward" for relations between the EC and Microsoft, according to Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Competition, according to her blog. Kroes noted that Microsoft was the first company that ever refused to comply with an EC decision. She has been a fierce critic of the company.

Microsoft's Smith called the proposal "a big step towards closing a long chapter of Microsoft antitrust issues in Europe." He added that he hoped the formal market test of the proposal would take place "before the end of the year."

In addition to the ballot screen proposal, Smith outlined a "public undertaking" to better enable third-party software interoperability with Microsoft's products, such as Windows, SharePoint and Exchange. Although the EC has imposed fines and penalties against Microsoft in years past over interoperability issues, Smith said in the press conference that Microsoft's interoperability proposal was not released in response to any EC Statement of Objections.

The interoperability proposal, a 10-year deal, seems consistent with past Microsoft interoperability efforts. Microsoft unveiled its interoperability principles in February of 2008, promising to open up its APIs and documentation on various Microsoft software products. However, with this proposal, Microsoft will be required to support certain industry standards and show how it supports those standards. Smith said in the press conference that those standards would include Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) document format, as well as the OpenDocument Format standard, both of which are used in office productivity software. Smith added that Microsoft would also disclose how it meets browsers standards.

In addition, Microsoft would sell interoperability warrantees for a "nominal sum," Smith said. Annex A in Microsoft's preliminary interoperability proposal suggests that the warranty might sell for a fee of "10,000 Euros" ($14,729).

The warrantees would be "privately enforced," suggesting that the EC would not get involved in policing warrantee disputes. The Groklaw Web site suggested that might be a problem: "And what do you think the future holds if the EU Commission does nothing about the OOXML standards scandal?" the site asked. Groklaw also noted that Microsoft has taken seven years and still hasn't produced software documentation that meets the requirements of a 2002 U.S. antitrust action.

Smith suggested that Microsoft was simply meeting three principles for supporting software standards that were outlined by Kroes in her June speech.

"If you look back to Commissioner Kroes's speech in June of 2008, one of the things she highlighted was the desirability of creating mechanisms so that there would be binding obligations on companies in our industry, but then the industry could rely on those mechanisms in a way that were legally enforceable and did not always require the Commission to have to devote resources to every single issue," Smith said at the press conference. "And, in fact, that's precisely the mechanism in this undertaking, given the nature of these warranty obligations and the ability of other companies to rely on them."

Smith told Ina Fried of CNet News that the proposed model could apply to other software vendors with "high market share," such as Adobe, IBM and Google.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.