Microsoft browser ballot unfair, say small firms

Most of the developers whose browsers have been relegated to a second screen of the ballot Microsoft is now pushing to Europeans are mad as hell, and they won't take it anymore.


Most of the developers whose browsers have been relegated to a second screen of the ballot Microsoft is now pushing to Europeans are mad as hell, and they won't take it anymore. Four of the seven browser makers that have been shuffled off to an unseen page in the ballot are formally asking European antitrust regulators today to change the screen that users see when they're offered a choice of web software to download and install.

"Frankly, we're concerned about the inability of the average user to find us," said Shawn Hardin, the CEO of Flock, a company whose Flock browser is among the seven sent packing to the second section of the ballot. "No one seems to know that there are more than five [browser choices], and that's inconsistent with the EU's stated goals."

The ballot Microsoft started serving to users via Windows Update on Monday shows a total of 12 browsers, but only five, Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari, are immediately visible. To view the other seven browsers, users must scroll horizontally.

"Our request is simple," said Hardin. "We are not asking for a redesign of the ballot screen. All we want is some text or graphic that simply indicates that there is an option to view others to the right." A small arrow pointing to the right with a word or two of text would be sufficient, he added.

"We're not requesting a major change, we realize that's out of scope here, but we would like the choice screen to be consistent with the goal the EU expressed for the choice screen," Hardin said.

The ballot screen can be viewed by anyone on Microsoft's website. As Hardin pointed out, there is no implicit indication that other browsers are off the screen to the right. By itself, the horizontal scroll bar is insufficient. "Horizontal scrolling is non-standard on the web," Hardin said, contrasting that with the more typical vertical scrolling that users do within their browsers.

"Without something, no one will even think that there are more than five browsers," Hardin argued.

Earlier, the makers of Flock, Green Browser, Maxthon and Slim Browser, four of the seven second-class browsers, voiced their concerns to Microsoft, but got nowhere. That led them today to contact the European Commission, the antitrust agency that oversees the implementation of the ballot. "We're thankful to be part of the program, but we're sending a formal request to the commission to look into this issue," Hardin said.

Although there was a comment period set aside last year before the agreement with Microsoft was finalised by the commission, Flock and others were unable to participate because the comment period ended at the same time that the makers of the minor browsers were notified that they had made it onto the ballot. "We were all focused on making our cases for inclusion, not the choice screen design," Hardin said. By the time they were told by the commission that they were on the ballot, the period for commenting on its makeup was over.

"All of us were frankly surprised that there was no [indication] other browsers were available," said Hardin.

Hardin said the group was hopeful that the commission would demand Microsoft make a change to the ballot, but he thought it was unlikely their case would be considered. "Unfortunately, the likelihood, given the response from Microsoft, that it will be changed is low in the next three months," Hardin said, adding that the clock is ticking. "The urgency is now," he said. "The ongoing volume after this spring will be low... for the millions of PCs that get the ballot, this is a one-time download [of an alternate browser]. We'll never get this opportunity again."

Microsoft is required to wrap up the delivery of the ballot screen through Windows Update by May 1.

Not surprisingly, at least one of the first five browsers on the ballot doesn't share Hardin's concerns. Today, Opera said it was satisfied with the screen, and attributed its launch to a tripling of downloads in several major European countries.

Representatives from the European commission were not available for comment on the complaint filed by Flock and the other browser developers.

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