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To appease the European Commission in its pending antitrust case over the tying of Internet Explorer and Windows, Microsoft initially planned to release a version of Windows 7 in Europe that would be browser-free. That would ensure that consumers had the ability to choose a browser freely.

But a couple of weeks ago, Microsoft reversed course and proposed an alternative solution: a "ballot screen" that would enable consumers in the EU to select their browser of choice.

In a blog post last Friday, Dave Heiner, Microsoft's Deputy General Counsel, explained this ballot screen in greater detail:

Shortly after new Windows PCs are set up by the user, Microsoft will update them over the Internet with a consumer ballot software program. If IE is the default browser, the user will be presented with a list of other leading browsers and invited to select one or more for installation. Technically, this consumer ballot screen will be presented as a Web page that can be updated over time as new browsers become available.

As part of the installation process for a new browser, users can choose whether to make the new browser their default browser.  Users also can take advantage of configuration options built into Windows to change their default browser selection and turn access to IE, or other browsers, on or off.

Heiner says that Microsoft will apply the ballot screen to XP and Vista installations if it is approved. The ballot screen would not be displayed to users who have already set an alternative browser as their default. Heiner notes that this will create what amounts to a one-way street: some users will inevitably switch away from IE but few will switch to IE.

He goes on to point out that "it was not easy for Microsoft to accept the idea that we would essentially promote directly competing software from within our flagship product, Windows" but that the ballot screen approach will be better for computer manufacturers, browser vendors and consumers than the complete removal of IE altogether.

The European Commission has responded warmly to Microsoft's proposal and if approved, it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, it has on browser market share. My hunch is that it will have a negligible impact but I also wouldn't be surprised if Firefox got a little boost.

Perhaps even more interesting, however, would be to learn what effort Microsoft makes with the design of the ballot screen, as the design could have a real effect on the results. If Microsoft is smart, it will use focus groups, eye tracking, etc. to make sure that IE has subtle advantages.

Photo credit: Microsoft.

Patricio Robles

Published 3 August, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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