BRUSSELS: Microsoft Corp. will offer computer users a choice of rival Web browsers to ward off new European Union antitrust fines, EU regulators and Microsoft said Friday.
Microsoft said its proposal — if accepted by the European Commission — would ‘fully address’ antitrust worries over its browser and ‘would mark a big step forward in addressing a decade of legal issues.’
The EU executive has charged the company with monopoly abuse for tying the Internet Explorer browser to the Windows operating system installed on most of the world’s desktop computers.
It said it welcomed Microsoft’s suggestions but would have to check how they would work and whether they would ensure ‘genuine consumer choice.’ It will seek comment from other browser makers and computer manufacturers before deciding on the proposal, which could become legally binding for five years.
Regulators will also examine a new offer by Microsoft to share information with software developers who want to make products compatible with Windows and Windows servers. That aims to settle a lengthy antitrust row that has racked up nearly euro1.7 million ($2.42 million) in EU fines for Microsoft.
On the browser case, Microsoft is suggesting that users of Windows XP, Vista or its latest release Windows seven could pick a browser from a ballot screen listing five of the most popular browsers in Europe. Existing Windows users would get the ballot screen from a software update.
It said the choice of these five browsers would be reviewed twice a year based on usage data for the previous six months. Microsoft’s browser is the most widely used worldwide, but Mozilla Corp.’s Firefox is gaining in popularity.
Mozilla and Google Inc. — which recently released a browser, Chrome — are supporting the case against Microsoft.
Windows would still include Internet Explorer, but users would be able to disable it. Computer manufacturers could also choose to install other browsers, set them as default and disable Internet Explorer.
Microsoft’s general counsel Brad Smith said this would allow the company to ship Windows seven to European customers with Internet Explorer. The company said in June that it would remove the browser to avoid antitrust problems.
Smith said the pressure was now on EU regulators to approve a new option before Windows seven goes on sale on Oct. 22 or Microsoft would supply its ‘E’ version without any browser.
‘PC manufacturers building machines for the European market will continue to be required to ship E versions of Windows seven until such time that the Commission fully reviews our proposals and determines whether they satisfy our obligations under European law,’ he said.
EU regulators slammed that version as giving no real choice to the five per cent of customers who buy Windows in a stand-alone pack. Most people buy the software pre-installed on a computer assembled by manufacturers such as Dell or HP.
The ballot screen that Microsoft is now proposing is close to what regulators called for in January when they asked Microsoft to offer several browsers on Windows.
It is also backed by Norwegian mobile Internet browser maker Opera Software ASA, which triggered the EU antitrust case by complaining that Microsoft was unfairly using its power as the dominant supplier of operating system software to squeeze out rivals.
Opera lawyer Thomas Vinje welcomed Microsoft’s announcement Friday but said ‘the devil is in the detail’ on how far it would go to calm antitrust fears.
Offering the ballot screen to existing Windows users ‘will change the world,’ he said, because it would encourage developers to make cross-platform software based on Web standards instead of tailoring their work to Microsoft software.
Microsoft says that it fully complies with existing Web standards.
Microsoft said it was also promising to share more interoperability information with developers to help them make software that works with Windows, Windows Server, Office, Exchange and SharePoint.
Smith said this involve ‘significant change by Microsoft’ and was based on long talks with EU regulators. He said they also include enforceable warranty commitments.
‘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,’ he said. — AP