Microsoft rivals call for changes to EU browser settlement

The way Microsoft's ballot screen is designed is biased and needs tweaking to ensure it restores competition to the browser market, they contend

Microsoft's antitrust settlement offer to the European Commission needs minor, often cosmetic changes in order to restore fair competition to the market for Internet browsers, said some of the software giant's main rivals Thursday.

Their concerns about the settlement are echoed by ECIS, a trade group representing Oracle, IBM, Red Hat, and others, as well as by consumer organizations following the Microsoft antitrust case.

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Microsoft has proposed that Windows operating systems should show users a ballot screen inviting them to choose a Web browser from among the most popular ones when they first attempt to access the Internet.

Consumer organizations and the company's rivals generally approve of the idea, but believe the way Microsoft's ballot screen is designed is biased and will deter people from replacing Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser with another.

They also argue that a review period two years after the settlement would come into force is too long to wait, and they call for regular monitoring of the ballot screen every six months, to make sure it is having the desired effect of encouraging consumers to exercise their free choice.

At the beginning of this year the European Commission issued a statement of objections to Microsoft, accusing the company of abusing the dominance of Windows to skew competition in its favor in the Web browser market.

The accusations came five years after the Commission found Microsoft guilty of monopoly abuse in the markets for media players and workgroup server software, for which the company has been fined over 1 billion euros to date.

Faced with another costly and humiliating antitrust ruling against it in Europe, Microsoft last month offered to settle the browser case.

Competition commissioner Neelie Kroes welcomed the offer, which was an improvement on an earlier offer submitted in July, saying she was broadly happy with the latest undertakings.

But under E.U. antitrust rules, the settlement offer must be shown to interested third parties, including rivals and consumer groups.

Opera, a Norwegian browser maker, Google with its Chrome browser, and Mozilla, maker of Firefox, the closest competitor to Microsoft's Internet Explorer, are all on the point of submitting their formal response to the settlement offer, and all three agree on some small but crucial problems with the Microsoft offer.

Kroes said she expects some objections to the latest Microsoft offer from some rivals. "A number of people are never 100 percent satisfied," she told journalists last month. But for her the offer is enough.

Fearful of appearing troublesome and never satisfied, the companies most affected by the proposed settlement are treading very carefully in their submissions to Kroes and her team of antitrust officials.

"The ballot screen is a good solution and we support it, but there are some warts -- things that can easily be fixed," said Håkon Wium Lie, the chief technology officer of Opera, the company that sparked the antitrust case two years ago by complaining to the E.U. Regulator.

The ballot screen as devised by Microsoft warns users more than once of the risks they are taking by attempting to open a non-Microsoft software product. Opera wants the warnings scrapped, allowing for a one-click route to replacing Internet Explorer.

It also objects to the design of the ballot screen, with its Internet Explorer branding in the crucial top left corner of the screen.

It also calls for the order of the five ballot screens to be scrambled, instead of the browsers being listed alphabetically from left to right.

The order of browsers on the screen is a big issue for Mozilla, which could find itself in the least desirable right side of the screen if the list remains in alphabetical order by company name.

"If these warts are not removed it would be sad for the Web and sad for competition," Wium Lie said in a telephone interview, adding that the Commission has "a unique once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to correct the imbalance in the browser market.

ECIS is expected to take a tougher line in its response, due in with the antitrust officials by Monday.

"Experience in the E.U. and the U.S. has unfortunately demonstrated that anything less than a robust settlement agreement accompanied by effective compliance verification measures will likely lead to inadequate changes in Microsoft's behavior and a failure to redress damage resulting from many years of abusive practices," one person close to ECIS said, reading from a draft of the group's formal reply to the Commission.

French consumer group UFC Que Choisir is broadly in line with Opera and the other companies in its concerns about Microsoft's offer. Like them UFC Que Choisir is recognized as an interested third party in the antitrust case.

"Dramatic changes are needed," said Edouard Barreiro, an expert following the IT industry for UFC Que Choisir.

"We support the ballot screen but Microsoft's idea for it will bring nothing in the form it is in now. We want the Commission to press Microsoft to make significant changes," he said, mentioning the same issues raised by Opera and others.

ECIS, Google, Mozilla and the Commission were also unavailable to comment.

Microsoft had a prepared statement that didn't address the specific concerns of the groups. The statement concluded: "We look forward to the next steps in the process."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.