EU to oblige Microsoft to offer competitors’ browsers

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The European Commission will require Microsoft to give users of its ubiquitous Windows operating system the opportunity to choose between different Internet browsers to avoid breaching EU competition rules, the bloc's antitrust spokesman told EurActiv.

Although the Commission is still officially waiting for a response from Microsoft to the complaints raised last January, the outcome of this new battle with the IT giant is already taking form.

"If the Commission's preliminary conclusions as outlined in the recent statement of objections were confirmed, the Commission would intend to impose remedies that enabled users and manufacturers to make an unbiased choice between Internet Explorer and competing third party web browsers," Jonathan Todd, spokesperson for EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes, told EurActiv.

To this end, Microsoft will be obliged to design Windows in a way that allows users "to choose which competing web browser(s) instead of, or in addition to, Internet Explorer they want to install and which one they want to have as default," Todd explained. A possible solution could be to present Windows users with a so-called "ballot screen" from which they would choose their browser.

Alternatively, it could be left up to computer or mobile phone manufacturers, such as Dell or Nokia, which support Microsoft Windows by default, to provide users with different browsers, in agreement with Microsoft.

This line stems from the mistakes the Commission recognised it had made by imposing remedies on Microsoft in the Media Player case (see background). Indeed, although Microsoft is now obliged to offer a version of Windows without Media Player, for the most part, users are opting for the readily available bundled offer, which provides extra software at the same price. "That remedy was rubbish," acknowledged an official in the Commission's competition department. 

However, the new idea on the table is not without drawbacks of its own. "How the Commission defines the browsers eligible for being offered as an option to Internet Explorer?," a lawyer for Opera, the browser producer which filed the new complaint against Microsoft, told EurActiv.

"There are not many," replied Jonathan Todd. Indeed, at the moment the browser market is shared between Internet Explorer (the market leader by far), Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome and Opera. But the digital world is in a permanent revolution and nobody can foresee how many browsers there will be in five years' time.

Microsoft responded by stating: "We are committed to conducting our business in full compliance with European law. We are studying the statement of objections." The US giant now has until mid-March to respond to the Commission, and might also ask for a hearing. Brussels will not adopt a final decision until it has received Microsoft's official reply.

  • Mid-March: Deadline for Microsoft to react to the Commission's statement of objections.
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