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EU: Microsoft to test browser 'ballot screen'

Regulators say Redmond can go ahead with its latest proposed design to let users choose which browsers they wish to install along with, or instead of, Internet Explorer.

European Union regulators said Wednesday that Microsoft can go ahead and start using its latest proposed "ballot screen," which will let new users of Windows choose which browser--or browsers--they wish to use.

The decision to let Microsoft "market test" the latest version would seem to mark the wrapping up of the latest antitrust skirmish with Brussels.

More than a decade after Microsoft first started including a browser with Windows, regulators said earlier this year that they had reached the preliminary view that such an inclusion violated European antitrust law.

In response, Microsoft initially said it would ship Windows 7 in Europe without a browser at all, seemingly challenging the logic of the decision by the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU. However, amid indications that such a move would not fly, Microsoft in July offered a proposal that more closely matched what regulators and competitors wanted--a ballot screen that lets users choose which browser or browsers they wish to install.

Since then Microsoft, regulators, and competitors have been going back and forth about how that screen would look and operate.

"The improvements that Microsoft has made to its proposal since July would ensure that consumers could make a free and fully informed choice of web browser," Europe's antitrust authority said in a statement. Among the changes since Microsoft's July proposal is the agreement by Microsoft to add more information before users select a browser. Microsoft will now first present users with a screen explaining what a browser is and will then offer "Tell me more" buttons for each browser.

Under the revised proposal, Microsoft would, through Windows Update, make available for five years in the European Economic Area a screen allowing users of Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7 to choose which Web browsers they want to install. PC makers will also be able to install competing Web browsers and, if they choose, set those as the default browser and disable Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

"The Commission's preliminary view is that Microsoft's commitments would address these competition concerns and is market testing Microsoft's proposal in light of these requirements," The EC said in its statement.

For its part, Microsoft said it welcomed the European Commission's decision.

"For Microsoft, today's decision is a significant step toward closing a decade-long chapter of competition law concerns in Europe," general counsel Brad Smith said in a statement.

Update: Smith also spoke to CNET about the deal and its potential impact on others in the industry. Click here to read that interview.