In a reversal on Friday, Microsoft said it is now open to allowing users in Europe to select competing browsers in Windows 7.
Essentially, Microsoft is offering to put into Windows a way for consumers to easily install a rival to Internet Explorer. PC makers, as they can today, could still install a rival browser and could also disable Internet Explorer, if they choose.
"Under our new proposal, among other things, European consumers who buy a new Windows PC with Internet Explorer set as their default browser would be shown a 'ballot screen' from which they could, if they wished, easily install competing browsers from the Web," Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said in a statement.
As first reported by CNET News earlier this month, Microsoft had hoped to comply with Europe's objections to the inclusion of a browser in Windows simply by removing the browser entirely from Windows 7. However, the European Union indicated that such a move might not satisfy its concerns.
"Under the proposal, Windows 7 would include Internet Explorer, but the proposal recognizes the principle that consumers should be given a free and effective choice of Web browser, and sets out a means--the ballot screen--by which Microsoft believes that can be achieved," the commission said in a statement. "In addition, (computer makers) would be able to install competing Web browsers, set those as default and disable Internet Explorer should they so wish. The Commission welcomes this proposal, and will now investigate its practical effectiveness in terms of ensuring genuine consumer choice."
For now--and until the EU accepts Microsoft's proposal--the software maker said it will continue to ship only the browserless "E" version in Europe.
Opera votes for the ballot
Hakon Wium Lie, who as CEO of Opera Software has been outspoken about the IE antitrust issue, was delighted with the proposal.
"It's a happy day for us," Lie said. "We certainly think the ballot is good news and think it will give users a genuine choice."
What's not yet clear is what browsers will appear on the ballot list. Naturally, Lie is concerned about that matter.
"The rules for getting onto the ballot will be something the EU will watch closely," Lie said. It wouldn't be a good idea "to limit it to only one or two, but exactly how many is a good question."
Mozilla, which oversees development of the open-source Firefox browser, was more cautious.
"We're interested in seeing the specifics of the proposal that Microsoft is making and until that point it's hard to have a definitive reaction," said Chief Executive John Lilly in a statement. "It is, of course, a good development that Microsoft will make changes to allow users to choose their own default Web browser, as today's browser mediates so much of our online experience."
Mozilla also had questions about criteria to be selected for the ballot, what terms Microsoft might impose to be part of it, and whether Microsoft will update versions of Windows already running with the ballot.
The planned browserless version would create a number of headaches for users, including forcing them to try to download a competing browser without having Internet Explorer to do so, as well as making it more difficult to upgrade to Windows 7 than it would otherwise be. For example, moving from Vista to Windows 7 "E" would require a new installation of the operating system, while users elsewhere can just upgrade their existing Windows installation.
"While the Commission solicits public comment and considers this proposal, we are committed to ensuring that we are in full compliance with European law and our obligations under the 2007 Court of First Instance ruling," Smith said. "PCs manufacturers building machines for the European market will continue to be required to ship 'E' versions of Windows 7 until such time that the Commission fully reviews our proposals and determines whether they satisfy our obligations under European law.
Microsoft is also committing to "a public undertaking designed to promote interoperability between third party products and a number of Microsoft products, including Windows, Windows Server, Office, Exchange, and SharePoint."
The software maker faces a separate complaint over Office.
"Like the Internet Explorer proposal, the interoperability measures we are offering involve significant change by Microsoft," Smith said. "They build on the Interoperability Principles announced by Microsoft in February 2008, which were also based on extensive discussions with the Commission, and they include new steps including enforceable warranty commitments."