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Allowing users to 'vote' for browsers could be Microsoft's worst nightmare

There have been a couple of leaks of late in the ongoing Microsoft antitrust trial in the European Union that could spell bad news for the Softies if they’re true.

A couple of weeks back, the Wall Street Journal reported that the European Commission was leaning toward requiring Microsoft to distribute other vendors’ browsers with Windows as one piece of the possible remedy in the case brought by Opera Software. Given that Opera originally sought some kind of distribution deal to “level the playing field” among browser vendors, that kind of requirement wouldn’t be a surprise.

But on June 8 Bloomberg reported that the EC has distributed a survey to a number of PC makers, asking them about a possible “ballot screen” that it might require Microsoft to include with Windows. There aren’t a lot of specifics as to what such a screen might look like, but one can guess it would offer users, at installation, a choice of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, Chrome and possibly Safari. It’s also not clear whether the actual browser bits would be on the disk/DVD or users would be required, via a ballot-screen prompt, to download their choice from the Web.  (Microsoft isn’t commenting on this alleged remedy, or pretty much anything involving the EC antitrust case, for what it’s worth.)

Having just returned from a demo today of Firefox 3.5 — a new interim test build of which is due out this week, with a Release Candidate and then final code expected to follow shortly — I’d say Microsoft could be in some serious trouble if users really are encouraged to choose proactively based on features and functionality, rather than take the easy way and use what’s provided by default. The new Firefox has a number of features, from “tear-off” tabs, to souped-up JavaScript performance, to audio/video integration directly into the browser window, that aren’t in IE. (Granted, IE 8 has several features, like granular private-browsing settings, that Mozilla is just getting around to now. But the new capabilities Mozilla is touting for its 3.5 release are the kinds of “demos-well” features that could convince fence-sitting users to jump.)

If the EC simply requires PC makers to provide a check-box list of browsers, Microsoft’s known-quantity status might keep some customers from switching to lesser-known competitors. But many less-savvy users don’t know there are browsers other than IE out there. They might be inclined to try a browser from Apple or Google simply because they know Apple makes iPhones and Google delivers Web search. And if there is any kind of “trailer” or mini-demo allowed as part of the “balloting” process, via which each browser vendor could submit a two-minute clip of what each browser could do, Microsoft might have some very serious competition on its hands.

As I’ve said before, I’m somewhat surprised the EC agreed to pursue Opera’s case, given Microsoft has been allowed to claim for years — with next-to-no challenge — that IE is part of Windows. (I say “somewhat” because the EC sems hard-pressed to find any anti-Microsoft case it doesn’t like.) But the case is forging ahead, with Microsoft’s proactive move to allow the “removal” of IE from Windows 7 seeming to have done little to blunt the court’s enthusiasm.

Instead of debating the usual “the EC is right/the EC is wrong,” I’d like to hear what you think of the possible “ballot screen” remedy.

Up until now, I’ve felt the EC Microsoft browser-bundling case was more pro-competitor than pro-consumer. But if Microsoft isn’t forced to distribute its competitors’ products, and, instead, is required to offer customers a choice of brower at startup, might that option be a boon to customers and not just the competition?  Do you think more users would choose non-Microsoft alternatives if offered a choice at installation? Would this kind of remedy allow the best browser to win?

 

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