Europe: Microsoft's IE move gives Windows users no choice

The initial response from the European Commission this morning, to the news that Microsoft has decided to remove Internet Explorer from Windows 7 for European customers, is that it leaves customers no option or choice with regard to which Web browser they should install.

"The development of new online services makes Web browsers an increasingly important tool for businesses and consumers, and a lack of real consumer choice on this market would undermine innovation," reads this morning's statement from Brussels.

Citing its January Statement of Objections which accused Microsoft of inciting harm to consumers and to the Web browser market by offering them no choice for Web browsers, the Commission's contention this morning is that Microsoft's decision does not provide a remedy for that infraction: essentially, that giving the consumer no Web browser still gives that consumer no choice.

"The SO [Statement of Objections] sets out the preliminary view that, should the Commission conclude that Microsoft's conduct was abusive, any remedy would need to restore a level-playing field and enable genuine consumer choice between Internet Explorer and third-party Web browsers, in order to bring the infringement effectively to an end," reads this morning's statement. "A potential remedy to these concerns, which the Commission considered in the SO and which would not require Microsoft to provide Windows to end users without a browser, would be to allow consumers to choose from different Web browsers presented to them through a 'ballot screen' in Windows."

With that statement, we now know what the EC's intentions are: It would like for Microsoft to provide a way for users to install any of multiple Web browsers, presumably including Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Google Chrome, and Opera.

In Deputy General Counsel Dave Heiner's statement yesterday, he explicitly stated that the final decision over what choice or choices Microsoft ends up offering will not be made by Microsoft alone, tossing the ball into the EC's court.

"Our decision to only offer IE separately from Windows 7 in Europe cannot, of course, preclude the possibility of alternative approaches emerging through Commission processes," Heiner wrote. "Other alternatives have been raised in the Commission proceedings, including possible inclusion in Windows 7 of alternative browsers or a 'ballot screen' that would prompt users to choose from a specific set of Web browsers. Important details of these approaches would need to be worked out in coordination with the Commission, since they would have a significant impact on computer manufacturers and Web browser vendors, whose interests may differ. Given the complexity and competing interests, we don't believe it would be best for us to adopt such an approach unilaterally."

In a blog post yesterday, Mozilla Foundation CEO Mitchell Baker voiced her support for a "ballot screen," although she conceded that such a screen would have to be presented carefully so as not to confuse the end user about the choices of Web browsers available.

"The lack of knowledge of this choice and the effect it can make is of course a key problem with today's competitive structure, and is closely related to the integration of IE into Windows," Baker wrote. "Enabling more people to understand the choices available to them can have some very beneficial results. It is also complex and this aspect of a remedy must be very carefully crafted. The chances for creating a difficult user experience or unintended consequences are real, and so there is a level of concern about the details of what a remedy would look like among even those who support the principle. This mirrors both the challenge and the opportunity of working to provide greater user choice. The reality of the challenges reflects the great importance of the goal."

Meanwhile, in a telephone interview with Computerworld, Opera CEO John von Tetzchner accused Microsoft of trying to replicate the circumstances of Windows XP N, the version it agreed to distribute to Europe without Windows Media Player -- a version which ended up selling dramatically poorly. If no one buys Windows 7 E for similar reasons, von Tetzchner alleges, Microsoft could win again.

"If Microsoft got its way there would be no ballot screen, just a version of Windows that has no browser at all -- just like the edition N of Windows that resulted from the earlier European antitrust case," von Tetzchner told Computerworld.

This morning's statement from the EC responded a little less coldly to the notion that computer manufacturers and OEMs would be given the choice of whether to install Internet Explorer or not on their systems (they can already install other browsers, the new choice concerns whether to not install IE8). However, the Commission left itself an open back door to a future complaint by openly suggesting that it should not draw any conclusions about this decision too soon, lest this actually be a trap set by Microsoft to lure OEMs into some unforeseen, but unilaterally beneficial, set of circumstances.

"Were the Commission to conclude that Microsoft's behavior has been abusive, it would have to consider whether this proposal would in itself be sufficient to create genuine consumer choice on the Web browser market," the EC statement reads. "The Commission would inter alia take into account the long standing nature of Microsoft's conduct. It would also have to consider whether this initial step of technical separation of IE from Windows could be negated by other actions by Microsoft."

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