Microsoft Threatened with Sanctions over Missing Browser Choice Screens

Microsoft is facing possible sanctions by the European Commission (EC) for failing to fully abide by its promise to give European users a choice of Web browser with their Windows distributions.

In a statement on Tuesday, JoaquĆ­n Almunia, the EC's vice president for competition policy, said that "if infringement is confirmed, there will be sanctions" on Microsoft. However, Microsoft had already confirmed in a blog post that same day that it omitted the browser choice screens from Windows 7 Service Pack 1 distributions released in Europe due to an internal technical error

The omission of the browser choice screens has gone unaddressed since February 2011, when SP1 for Windows 7 was launched. Consequently, Almunia estimated that "about 28 million users may not have seen the choice screen at all." The EC apparently relied on Microsoft's reports of compliance as an assurance. Because that approach failed in this case, Almunia suggested that the EC might appoint more antitrust monitors in the future to avoid such lapses.

The case has deep roots with the EC, which doesn't permit companies to leverage one monopoly product, such as Windows, to create monopolies in other lines of business, such as the Web browser and media player markets. In June, the EC renewed its tough stance against such infringements by ordering Microsoft to pay a $1.1 billion penalty associated with antitrust litigation stemming all of the way back to 1998. The penalty constituted additional punishment for Microsoft's behavior of not paying the EC's antitrust fines over the years.

The browser screen, as devised by Microsoft, offers European users of Windows a choice of browsers to install and use. The EC required the use of these browser screens as part of a settlement in which Microsoft was found to have used its Windows monopoly to push Internet Explorer. The browser screen first started arriving to Windows users in Europe back in March of 2010.

In its blog post, Microsoft claimed that the browser screens have reached "about 90% of the PCs that should have received it." On July 3, Microsoft renewed the delivery of the browser screens to European Union-based PCs running Windows 7 SP1. The full delivery to those users will be completed by the end of this week, the company estimated. Microsoft also said it hired external counsel to help it be compliant with such issues in the future.

Microsoft offered to extend the period in which it offers the browser screens by "an additional 15 months." The EC's original requirements were for Microsoft to deliver the browser screens until 2014.

As of June, the StatCounter Web site found that the Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome were the most frequently used browsers in Europe at 30 percent use each, followed by Internet Explorer at 28.2 percent use. Trailing the leaders were Apple's Safari browser at 7.3 percent and Opera Software's browser at 3.4 percent.

Either Internet Explorer or Chrome is the No. 1 browser in the United States, depending on which organization is doing the counting. Microsoft favors Net Applications' data and has critiqued StatCounter, although each service has its own explanations for the methodology used. Microsoft's position was staked out in March by Roger Capriotti, director of Internet Explorer product marketing. In reply, StatCounter published a series of "errors" in Microsoft's assumptions in an open letter to Capriotti.

The idea of "browser markets" is a little confusing since browsers are typically given away for free, rather than sold like other software. However, they're also an integral part of the process of garnering Web advertising revenues for companies. In addition, browsers themselves have taken on greater importance as they assume some of the functions of operating systems. Google, for instance, offers its Chrome OS as a completely Web-based operating system that runs applications as a service from the Internet, rather than on the desktop via a local OS.

In a hint of further browser wars to come, Mozilla and Google have both publicly complained that their browsers will be excluded from full functionality rights afforded to Internet Explorer when future Windows RT devices are released. Microsoft plans to release Windows 8 in October.

About the Author

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