Microsoft's browser choice error may have cost Firefox 9 million downloads, Mozilla says

Downloads of Firefox declined after Microsoft failed to include a court-mandated browser choice screen in Windows 7 SP 1

Daily Firefox downloads decreased by 63 percent during the nearly 15 months that Microsoft failed to show users of Windows 7 Service Pack 1 a court-mandated browser choice screen, according to figures released by Mozilla.

In settlement of a European Union antitrust case, Microsoft agreed to present new Windows users with a screen allowing them to choose a web browser to install instead of, or in addition to, Internet Explorer. Microsoft should have presented the browser choice screen to new and existing Windows users from December 2009, but failed to include it in Windows 7 SP1 on its release in February 2011. Microsoft reinstated the choice screen after a complaint was filed with antitrust regulators at the European Commission.

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The absence of the browser choice screen from new or updated installations of Windows 7 had a big impact on downloads of Firefox, according to a blog post by Mozilla's general counsel and vice president of business affairs, Harvey Anderson.

"Cumulatively 6 to 9 million Firefox browser downloads were lost during this period," Anderson wrote. "After the fix, Firefox downloads increased 150 percent to approximately 50,000 per day," he said, adding that when the browser screen was absent, downloads decreased to a low of 20,000 just prior to the fix.

Mozilla isn't the only one to notice the influence of the browser choice screen on browser downloads.

The screen shows the top five browsers by market share on the first page, while seven others can be scrolled into view. When Apple abandoned the Windows version of its Safari browser, little-known competitor Maxthon was catapulted to the front page, boosting downloads of its browser. "We have witnessed an increase," Maxthon spokesman Lewis Fein said at the time, although he did not say how big the increase was.

Other browser vendors did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the influence of the browser choice screen.

Mozilla's Anderson said Microsoft's 2009 browser choice commitments were a "foundational part" of the remedy developed by the Commission to resolve Microsoft's competition violations in European countries.

The complaint filed against Microsoft resulted last Wednesday in the Commission sending Microsoft a statement of objections regarding its failure to offer Windows 7 users a free choice of browser. At the time Microsoft said the browser choice screen's absence was the result of a technical error.

Microsoft's error could have cost its competitors new customers, according to Anderson. "After accounting for the aggregate impact on all the browser vendors, it seems like this technical glitch decreased downloads and diminished the effectiveness of the remedy ordered in the 2009 Commitments."

The cost to Microsoft could be a fine of up to 10 percent of its worldwide turnover -- although that figure is the legal maximum, not an indication of what a possible fine would be, according to the Commission.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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