Microsoft Agrees to Browser Ballot Changes

Microsoft’s long simmering antitrust case with the European Commission (EC) over its bundling of Internet Explorer (IE) with Windows going back to 1996 may soon be over — and fairly bloodlessly at that, at least when it comes to the red ink, if not red tape.

According to a report by Bloomberg as well as a source familiar with the negotiations, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) has agreed to changes to the final proposal suggested by Opera Software, the Norwegian browser firm whose complaint started the ball rolling in December 2007.

Under the agreement, Microsoft will still provide a “ballot screen” on startup of new Windows computers that lets users choose which browser they want to use as their default for Web surfing, as the company had already agreed to with the EC’s competition directorate earlier this fall.

However, Microsoft competitors had some tweaks they requested, including listing the leading browsers randomly so that no vendor would be handicapped by, for instance, its name if the ballot screen were populated on an alphabetical basis. Microsoft has agreed to the random listing when the PC is started up the first time, as well as to eliminate the IE logo from popping up during the process, and blocking worrisome alerts and warnings in Windows that might put users off.

The ballot screen concept as originally laid out would have listed the top five browsers — mostly likely including IE, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, and Opera — alphabetically. Opera complained about that scheme since that would put it last on the list. The change to randomize which browsers will be displayed in what order will ostensibly fix that problem.

Spokespersons for both Opera and Microsoft declined to comment, and a spokesperson for the European Union’s (EU) Commission on Competition was not reachable in time to comment — although it has generally been the commission’s policy not to comment on issues in the case.

Microsoft, of course, is hopeful that the case will come to an end, and soon.

A final vote soon

Sources said that the conclusion of the browser brouhaha is likely to come by about December 15. That is the date that the so-called “college of commissioners” will likely vote as to whether to finally settle.

A successful conclusion to the case will also likely be met with satisfaction by Neelie Kroes, whose term as commissioner for competition in the EC — the executive branch of the EU — just ended.

Kroes has been at the center of the whirlwind regarding antitrust issues and Microsoft for the past several years. She has taken a tough stand on Microsoft’s business practices in Europe, and successfully concluded an earlier case against the company in late 2007. In that case, Microsoft was found culpable of illegally bundling Windows Media Player with Windows in the EU, as well as keeping interoperability information from competitors in the groupware server market.

Ultimately, Microsoft ended up paying nearly a billion dollars in penalties and interest in the earlier case, and is still appealing an additional fine of roughly $1.35 billion levied against it for dragging its feet on providing the interoperability documentation to competitors.

This time around, however, financial penalties are off the table. “By definition, there will be no fines,” said one source familiar with the matter.

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