A Tale of Two Ballot Screens

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Remember the browser ballot screen that Microsoft agreed to add as part of its settlement with the EU over competition issues? It's happening now:

Over the next few weeks, Microsoft will begin offering a “Web browser choice screen” to Internet Explorer users in Europe, as required by the European Commission. Internal testing of the choice screen is underway now. We’ll begin a limited roll-out externally next week, and expect that a full scale roll-out will begin around March 1, a couple of weeks ahead of schedule.

External testing of the choice screen will begin next week in three countries: the United Kingdom, Belgium and France. Anyone in those countries who wishes to test it can download the browser choice screen software update from Windows Update. We plan to begin a phased roll-out of the update across Europe the week of March 1.

To be fair to Microsoft, the proposed design (also viewable online as a Web page) seems reasonable enough:

The browser choice screen, shown below, will present you with a list of leading browsers. In keeping with our agreement with the European Commission, this list is presented in random order. You can also scroll to the right to see additional browsers, which are also presented in random order. The browsers that are listed and the content relating to them will be updated from time to time. The screen provides three options: Click on “Install” to install one of the listed browsers. Click on “Tell me more” to get more information about any of the browsers. These links (and the browser logos and associated text) are provided by each browser vendor. Click on “Select Later” to review the choice screen the next time you log onto your computer. This software update will also add a shortcut to your desktop, from which you can launch the choice screen at any time.

Of course, there is one big drawback with this approach, which is not really Microsoft's fault – well, not directly, at least. That is the fact that everyone and their dog knows what Internet Explorer is, and who Google are (cunningly, the latter emphasise the Google part of “Google Chrome”, and not the completely meaningless “Chrome” bit), but the same is not true of “Firefox” And if people haven't heard about it, they are more likely to dismiss it as an option either consciously or maybe just unconsciously.

That's a big problem for Mozilla, because the ballot screen is a huge opportunity to push up Firefox's steadily increasing market share significantly in the countries where it is being rolled out, *if* people understand the issues involved. Mozilla is aware of that and is trying to address it with a Web site entitled: Open to Choice which explains in non-technical terms why browser choice matters:

It’s an important choice because the Web browser has become one of the most critical and trusted relationships of our modern lives – with nearly perfect knowledge of everything we do. It is the lens through which we look at the virtual world, and the medium by which we connect, learn, share, and collaborate. The browser you choose is responsible for providing you with the necessary tools to manage your online life, and to protect your privacy and security.

Interestingly, Mozilla sees the site as the start of one of those conversation things:

We believe that the Browser Choice screen is an important milestone towards helping more people take control of their online lives — and we hope for the conversation to become broader and deeper. We’ve set up opentochoice.org as one place for you to discuss what this choice means to you — and we hope that you’ll add your own voice to this conversation and those to come.

It's a nice idea, but here's still a catch: how are people going to find out about the Open to Choice site if they don't already know about Firefox? Not through the “Tell me more” link on the ballot screen, which links to basic information about Firefox, reasonably enough. This means there's a clear danger that Mozilla will be preaching to the converted: the ones it wants to reach are precisely the ones that are unlikely to find out about the site.

Mozilla is naturally hoping that journalists, bloggers and tweeters will write about the site and spread the word – something I'm obviously happy to do. But again, the people reading my words are likely to be using Firefox already, and if not, certainly aware of the issues raised by browser choice.

It's a very difficult problem that doesn't have any obvious, reasonable solution. Mozilla can't really afford to take out full-page ads in newspaper nor to mail CDs to every household in Europe. Equally, Microsoft might object to being forced to carry even more information about why people should throw over the “obvious” browser, Internet Explorer.

One thing that could help break that vicious circle is to get the Spreadfirefox community involved. These are people that have the dual qualities of knowing about Firefox's strengths already, and being motivated enough to reach out to people that don't. Maybe Spreadfirefox should start a new European campaign to get as many of its supporters passing on the message to those who wouldn't otherwise get it.

Despite this challenge, the browser ballot screen certainly offers Firefox a unique opportunity, not least because the form it takes is reasonably fair. The same can't be said of the *other*, less well-known Microsoft ballot screen – that for choosing the default file format for Microsoft Office. Neowin.net has published a screenshot of what it looks like – and it's not such a pretty sight as for the browser ballot.

First, it's not clear if there is any randomisation of the order – a simple, but important way of ensuring that the user is not pushed towards Microsoft's own formats. Secondly, we have the following choice of words accompanying the ODF option:

Many features of Microsoft Office are supported but some content or editability may be lost upon save.

Who in their right mind would opt for that? Given that Microsoft has come up with a good design for the browser ballot, it should be pressed to do the same for ODF as well. Even if it does, ODF will be faced with the same recognition problem as Firefox does, but at least it will be doing so fighting on a level playing field.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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