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Microsoft rivals critical of browser 'ballot screen'

Competitors have concerns about Microsoft's proposal to satisfy EU officials by offering Windows users a choice of browsers, according to a report.

Mozilla and Opera are both unhappy with Microsoft's proposed "ballot screen" to let Windows users in Europe select their default browser, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

Microsoft's proposed browser ballot screen is its attempt to satisfy the antitrust investigation from the European Union over Internet Explorer's dominance in Windows. The screen would present the user with a menu to install other browsers, including Firefox, Opera, Google Chrome, and Safari, and let the user pick one as the default.

Microsoft became open to the concept over the summer as an alternative to removing IE from Windows for the European market.

At the time, the idea appealed to Opera CEO Hakon Wium Lie, who declared, "It's a happy day for us. We certainly think the ballot is good news and think it will give users a genuine choice." But Mozilla Corp. CEO John Lilly adopted a more wait-and-see approach, saying he wanted to see the specifics before reacting.

EU officials asked rival browser makers among others for their input on Microsoft's proposal, sending them questionnaires over the summer, according to the report.

After checking out the ballot screen and the proposal from Microsoft, the European Union for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), which includes Opera Software ASA as one of its members, said it presents too many hurdles for the average user.

According to Sunday's Wall Street Journal (subscription required), ECIS and Opera attorney Thomas Vinje said that selecting another browser requires "the user to confirm and answer threatening and confusing warnings and questions. Microsoft has cunningly found a way to accept the Commission's suggestion of a ballot screen, but to do so in a way that will be entirely ineffective."

In response to an e-mail from CNET, Vinje said that Microsoft's current ballot screen falls short of having any effect on competition since it fails to offer users a seamless and unbiased choice of browser. However, he felt the problem could be fixed with some trivial changes.

He said that despite choosing an alternate browser through the ballot, Internet Explorer would remain turned on and that only an additional procedure would allow the user to deactivate IE. So the ballot screen is simply installing another browser in addition to IE rather than offering users a choice of a single browser.

Adding an alternative browser is unnecessarily complex, according to Vinje. The ballot screen, set up as a Web page in IE, requires many unnecessary clicks, displays threatening warnings, and poses confusing questions before another browser can be downloaded and set up. He believes users will be discouraged from selecting an alternative browser.

The ECIS feels that a powerful, yet trivial change to Microsoft's proposal is needed: the ballot screen must be designed to offer users a seamless choice in which a single click for an alternative browser is sufficient to download and install that browser, without warnings or questions, and without leaving Internet Explorer active and visible.

"Choosing an alternative browser must not be more cumbersome than choosing Internet Explorer," said Vinje, "which can only be accomplished in a real ballot screen application--not in a Web page."

Countering with suggestions
Mozilla has said that a ballot screen is a good step, but as currently proposed, it's not good enough. A blog written August 18 by Mozilla's general counsel, Harvey Anderson, examined Microsoft's specific language and functionality in the ballot screen proposals. Anderson addressed several concerns and countered with his own suggestions.

Anderson praised Microsoft's effort to not include links or shortcuts to IE inside Office 2007 but said it should be expanded to include all Microsoft software. "If Microsoft applications need to launch a browser, they should only launch the user's default browser," he wrote. "The proposal should be modified such that this provision applies to all Microsoft desktop software, and certainly to the already announced Office 2010."

Anderson also expressed concerns about the ballot screen itself, saying IE could automatically become the default browser in a number of scenarios. It could end up as the default if the user ignores the ballot or can't figure out how to use it. It could also wind up the default if the user runs into problems trying to install one of the other browsers. But in this case, his only suggestion was that the ballot require the user to make a choice.

Finally, Anderson said that the ballot doesn't educate the user as to what a Web browser is or how each browser differs. "The ballot should introduce the user to at least a simple definition of what a browser is before offering the user a choice in browsers," he wrote. "It should probably go one step further and explain that the different browsers compete for superiority in the areas of ease of use, security, and customizability. "

Other voices have chimed in to criticize the ballot screen. Mitchell Baker, chair of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, detailed her concerns in a blog on August 17. Despite the user's ability to choose a different default browser, Baker said she believes IE would still have the upper hand with a prominent position on the Windows desktop and Taskbar.

"Choosing another browser as a 'default' does NOT mean that the other browser takes the place of IE," stated Baker in her blog. "For example, the IE logo ("shortcut") still remains unchanged on the desktop. The shortcut/logo of the browser the user has selected does not replace this, it is added elsewhere. As a result, the familiar location remains IE, not the user's choice."

Baker also expressed concern that the average nontechnical user may have trouble navigating the different screens required to choose a different browser. She said she believes the ballot screen only helps users download alternative browsers and should be designed to help them install, open, and make other browsers the default. "As proposed, we expect to see many people who want other browsers get lost in the process before they actually succeed in making an alternative browser their main browsing tool," she wrote.

The EU had hoped to wrap up this final phase of its investigation into IE, especially since all parties have agreed at least in principal to the idea of a ballot screen. But the competition could stall final approval if Microsoft is forced to wrestle with the finer points of the complaints.

Vinje believes that Microsoft only superficially accepted the EU's suggested remedy and that the ballot screen as designed does not restore competition. He said the EU will be careful to make sure that any proposed solution would be effective. And in this case, the ECIS would be surprised if Microsoft's proposal were accepted without "significant modifications."

On Tuesday, Microsoft spokesman Kevin Kutz said: "In July, we made a new proposal to address EU competition law issues related to Internet Explorer and interoperability. The Commission welcomed our proposal and announced it would assess its effectiveness. We continue to look forward to the next steps in this process."

Requests for comments from Opera and Mozilla were not immediately returned.

Update 12:15 p.m. PDT: Added comments from attorney Thomas Vinje.