Microsoft offers EU new deal over rival browsers

The latest twist in Microsoft’s ongoing battle with European regulators? The humble tick box.

In an attempt to forge a peace deal between the US software giant and Europe’s competition watchdogs, Microsoft has put forward a way to offer computer users web browsers other than its Internet Explorer.

Under the new plan, users starting up a Windows PC for the first time would get the option to download one of a number of web browsers. By ticking a box on a “ballot screen”, they would have the chance to opt for rival browsers such as Firefox or Safari — or stick with the Microsoft default.

The European Commission said it “welcomed” the decision, but was still considering whether it would bring to an end the drawn-out conflict over what it has called Microsoft’s “distorting” and “detrimental” decision to bundle IE with Windows.

“The European Commission can confirm that Microsoft has proposed a consumer ballot screen as a solution to the pending antitrust case,” it said in a statement.

Whether or not it achieves the desired affect, the move is intended to level the playing field between Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and other browsers like Mozilla’s Firefox, Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome.

The case itself came as a result of the complaint made in 2007 by Norwegian browser firm Opera, which claimed that Microsoft’s decision to incorporate its own web browser hurt its competitors. Earlier this year the commission decided that the bundling was anti-competitive and asked for Microsoft to propose legal alternatives to remedy the situation.

Microsoft had previously offered a straightforward remedy of releasing a new version of Windows for the European market that had IE stripped out – leaving PC manufacturers to make the decision of which browser to install by default. In reality, though, that workaround would have barely changed the status quo and did not satisfy the EU.

The current proposal could prove pyrrhic victory, however. Microsoft has indicated that under its new scheme Internet Explorer would remain the default browser — and it remains unclear how many users would choose to switch away when faced with a choice of more than a dozen rival programs.

But after stringing out the negotiations for several months, the company now appears keen to come to an accord.

“We believe that if ultimately accepted, this proposal will fully address the European competition law issues relating to the inclusion of Internet Explorer in Windows and interoperability with our high-volume products,” said the company’s genera counsel, Brad Smith. “This would mark a big step forward in addressing a decade of legal issues and would be good news for European consumers and our partners in the industry.”

Part of the proposals could be motivated by pressure on Microsoft’s financial results. Although Bill Gates famously said that his company would not change how it operated during the height of Microsoft’s antitrust case with the US government, the company has drawn fines of more than £1,5-billion from European regulators in the past four years.

Allied to slowing growth — it announced its second-to date drop in quarterly profits on Friday — the company could see a deal with the EU as a way to avoid another fine or the cost of producing a new version of Windows. –

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