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Microsoft tweaks browser ballot code

After complaints the original algorithm was not doing the job, Redmond fixes the code shuffling the order of the browsers in its ballot screen for European users.

Microsoft's latest tweak to its browser ballot screen seems to have fixed a key programming flaw.

In response to antitrust concerns by European regulators, the company recently unveiled its browser ballot page to give European users a choice of browsers to install. But the company was criticized for using sloppy code that didn't adequately randomize the order in which each browser's icon and link displays.

The algorithm used is supposed to change the order of the browsers from left to right each time the page opens. That change occurred, but apparently not randomly enough. The code often put rival browsers at the start of the list and frequently kept Internet Explorer to the far right.

Microsoft's browser ballot page
Microsoft's browser ballot page Microsoft

Following public comments on the programming flaw, Microsoft fixed the glitch. In a statement released this week, Kevin Kutz, director of public affairs for Microsoft, said: "We can confirm that we made a change to the random icon order algorithm in the browser choice screen for Europe. We are confident the algorithm change will be an improvement. As always, we are grateful for the feedback we get from developers, and we thank those who commented on the topic and suggested changes."

The programming flaw was initially revealed the final week of February by a Slovakian tech site called (Google Translate English version). Rob Weir, an IBM software architect, picked up on the story and discussed the details on his blog page. Weir blamed the problem on a sloppy algorithm and expressed astonishment that the flaw made it out the door before Microsoft caught it.

Over the weekend, Weir updated his blog to confirm that Microsoft has since tweaked the algorithm, and that the browser ballot page is properly randomizing the order.

Following a formal complaint from Opera in 2007, the EU opened an investigation, saying it believed that bundling Internet Explorer with Windows violated the region's antitrust laws. After first proposing to release new versions of Windows without any browser in Europe, Microsoft eventually settled on the ballot screen as a compromise in an aim to satisfy regulators' concerns. The company's first attempt was met with criticism by rival browser makers who faulted the screen as too confusing and still giving IE the upper hand. The second attempt finally met with favor from the EU, which gave Microsoft the go-ahead to start using the ballot.

With or without flaws in its programming, the screen is already providing a boost in business to rival browsers.

Mozilla CEO John Lilly told The New York Times over the weekend that more than 50,000 downloads of Firefox have already taken place through direct links from the ballot screen. Opera has also seen a surge in downloads, according to Opera Software's Chief Strategy Officer Rolf Assev. "Since the browser choice screen rollout, Opera downloads have more than tripled in major European countries such as Belgium, France, Spain, Poland and the U.K.," said Assev.

The ballot screen is also giving more obscure browsers a chance for recognition. In addition to displaying icons for the five major browsers, the screen offers up some real estate to Avant Browser, K-Meleon, Flock, Maxthon, Sleipnir, GreenBrowser, and FlashPeak. However, a few of these lesser-known rivals are unhappy over their placement on the screen and have complained to the EC.

Due to the width of the screen, just IE, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera are visible at first glance. Only after scrolling to the right can people view the other six browsers in the list. If these more obscure companies have a case, Microsoft may need to tweak its ballot a bit further.