EC: Microsoft will consider Windows 7 E 'ballot screen' for other browsers

In a public memo this afternoon, the European Commission has stated that Microsoft has offered to include a "ballot screen" with choices of Web browsers, including Internet Explorer 8 and others, as a way for the company to comply with the EC's directives. Last month, the company decided that it would remove IE8 from Windows 7 for European customers only, though that move alone was initially met with skepticism by the continent's legislators, who claimed that the move by itself would not restore choice to consumers.

Microsoft formally acknowledged the proposition minutes ago. Its public statement, given by General Counsel Brad Smith, includes the following: "If this proposal is ultimately accepted, Microsoft will ship Windows in Europe with the full functionality available in the rest of the world. As requested by the Commission, we will be publishing our proposal in full here on our website as soon as possible. While the Commission solicits public comment and considers this proposal, we are committed to ensuring that we are in full compliance with European law and our obligations under the 2007 Court of First Instance ruling."

While today's follow-up move is apparently being welcomed, it has not yet been sanctioned.

"Under the proposal," reads today's statement from the EC, "Windows 7 would include Internet Explorer, but the proposal recognizes the principle that consumers should be given a free and effective choice of Web browser, and sets out a means -- the ballot screen -- by which Microsoft believes that can be achieved. In addition, OEMs would be able to install competing Web browsers, set those as default, and disable Internet Explorer should they so wish. The Commission welcomes this proposal, and will now investigate its practical effectiveness in terms of ensuring genuine consumer choice."

Although October 22 remains GA-day for Windows 7, its relative availability to European customers on any day close to that date, may now depend on how long the European Commission takes to examine this proposal. Certainly it should already have had plenty of time to consider the idea of a ballot screen, as it was proposed long before Microsoft made its removal decision last month, and was backed by European manufacturers such as Opera Software.

A mechanism for letting installers choose their Web browsers may be easy enough to implement; what may be difficult is effectuating the upgrade procedure. The first versions of Windows 7E for Europe, at least at the outset, will not be able to upgrade over existing installations of Windows Vista or XP, Microsoft has previously informed Betanews. Enabling the ballot screen, which would in turn enable the installer to trigger third-party browser installation (perhaps through the installation procedure, perhaps over the Web), may for upgraders require the installer to effectively uninstall older Microsoft Web browsers such as IE7 or IE6 -- processes which, at the time, Microsoft engineered (perhaps intentionally) to be difficult. That is, unless Microsoft has worked out a way to use its operating system imaging platform (the same one that enables network-based installation of Windows Vista to multiple clients) to overwrite older OS installations with effectively "blank" Windows 7 installations that are then ready for third-party browsers such as Firefox, Chrome, or Safari.

Smith's statement this afternoon appears to imply that Microsoft has already worked out those technical details, and that full upgrading capability is indeed possible, if and when the EC gives the company the go-ahead.

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