Resolved: EU 'Choice Screen' for Windows will show top 5 browsers first

European users of Windows 7, Vista, and XP who have Internet Explorer set as their default Web browser will very soon be given a choice of alternatives, and that choice will reveal itself to users by way of an important Windows update. The announcement came this morning from Brussels, where the European Commission has accepted the latest adjusted proposal from Microsoft, in response to the EC's Statement of Objections earlier this year.

The Web site which the EC is establishing for public review of the browser ballot -- now being called the Choice Screen -- was not available in Betanews tests Wednesday morning, though should soon appear at www.browserchoice.eu.

In an apparent compromise, the Choice Screen will give users the complete list of the 12 most prominently used Windows browsers: Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, AOL Explorer, Maxthon, K-Meleon, Flock, Avant Browser, Sleipnir, and Slim Browser. The appearances of AOL Explorer, Maxthon, Avant Browser, and Slim Browser in this list are notable because they all utilize IE's Trident layout engine. K-Meleon and Flock utilize Mozilla's Gekko layout engine, while Sleipnir (from Japan) can be set to use either Trident or Gekko.

Those browsers that utilize other manufacturers' engines, however, will not be listed prominently. In a key endorsement of Microsoft's October design, Safari, Chrome, Opera, Firefox, and IE will each get a vertical strip in the center of the screen. But their positions within that area will be randomized, so IE doesn't always get the slot on the left by virtue of market position, and Safari doesn't always get that slot by virtue of its manufacturer beginning with "A." The other seven browsers will only be visible when the user scrolls the list sideways.

Every six months, independent usage share statistics will be monitored to determine whether the division between the Top 5 and the "Others" should be adjusted. Something the EC is calling "a reporting and review mechanism" will be in place, which implies the creation of a review panel for monitoring Microsoft's progress. Also semi-annually, Microsoft will report its usage statistics for the Choice Screen, evidently to this panel, although information from the EC this morning does not make clear whether such a panel would be comprised of one or more people.

In an important concession to competitors, the Choice Screen itself will not be presented in a window that labels itself as Internet Explorer. The most recent publicly available rendition of the proposed screen from Microsoft clearly shows the IE icon in the upper left corner. And the Choice Screen will not be presented to users who have already installed a browser other than IE as their default -- thus, a Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera users won't be given an opportunity from Microsoft to switch back to IE.

And in perhaps as important a change to the way modern versions of Windows are used, Vista and XP owners will be given the option to uninstall IE. Windows 7 users worldwide currently have that option. A statement from Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith this morning indicates this choice will only be available to European users -- in Smith's words, "for users in Europe -- specifically the region known as the European Economic Area, which includes 30 nations."

While Windows users have always had the option of installing and using a different default browser, the presence of IE in the OS appeared to have been set in cement. During the landmark US antitrust trial against Microsoft that defined the state of software development throughout the 1990s, Microsoft argued that its Web browser and operating system had become inseparable -- this during the period that Windows 95 and 98 were being sold, and Windows XP was being designed.

In a press conference this morning in Brussels, outgoing Commissioner for Competition Neelie Kroes proclaimed victory, and then suggested that the lesson learned from the Internet Explorer experience should be applied to all commercial retail products in essentially every category.

"It is as if you went to the supermarket and they only offered you one brand of shampoo on the shelf, and all the other choices are hidden out the back, and not everyone knows about them," stated Comm. Kroes. "What we are saying today is that all the brands should be on the shelf."

This morning's statement from Microsoft's Brad Smith repeats the conditions that Kroes outlined in a June 2008 policy speech, including the little Roman numerals -- an indication that mention of those policy points in the statement itself may have been a condition of acceptance of Microsoft's proposal. Smith then went on to paint a bright future for interoperability, but colored that future within very specific, dark borders: "As we've said before, we are embarking on a path that will require significant change within Microsoft. Nevertheless, we believe that these are important steps that resolve these competition law concerns. This is an important day and a major step forward, and we look forward to building a new foundation for the future in Europe."

The case against Microsoft itself has not been dismissed. The EC will maintain watch over Microsoft for the next five years, with semi-annual reports as to progress (not unlike its current relationship with the US Justice Dept.), and with a full hearing on the matter tentatively scheduled for 2011.

As this morning's statement from the Commission reads, "The Commission will carefully monitor the impact of the undertaking on the market and take its findings into account in its pending antitrust investigation regarding interoperability." Those final five words are a clear indication that the EC's case against Microsoft continues.

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