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New Complaint for MS Browser Ballot Screen

The European Commission (EC) began "market testing" Microsoft's browser "ballot screen" proposal a week ago as a method for leveling the playing field for browser vendors in the European Union (EU).

Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) proposal to settle the case was first published on October 9 and will run for a month in the EU's Official Journal, during which affected parties and the public can comment, an EC spokesperson told InternetNews.com in an e-mail two weeks ago.

Thursday, a Mozilla employee who is not an organization spokesperson, commented in her blog, saying the ballot screen portion of the proposal -- as it stands -- is unworkable because it's unfair to the Firefox browser, which she works on.

In her blog, Jennifer Boriss, who works for Mozilla as an interaction designer, complained that choosing an alphabetical listing by company handicaps Firefox, which currently has the second highest installed base around the world.

"At first, it was proposed that the browser be listed in order of market share (first IE, then Firefox, etc). However, since unfair market share is the reason the EC got hot and bothered in the first place, the current design puts the browsers in alphabetical order by name of the company that creates them. That means the first item is Apple Safari, then Google Chrome, etc.," Boriss said in her blog.

"This is my personal opinion and sure as hell doesn’t reflect Mozilla’s official position or any formal statement from Mozilla," she added.

Since Microsoft last summer finally agreed to use a ballot screen, which would let users choose which browser to use as the default on a new PC's first boot, the front page of a two-page list as originally proposed would include icons to download the five top browsers -- based on market share.

Boriss pointed to a study released in April by online ad management vendor ADTech, which showed Internet Explorer (IE) with 67.7 percent of the browser market in Europe at the end of March, followed by Firefox with 25.3 percent share.

ADTech's rankings also gave Apple's browser 2.6 percent, Opera 1.4 percent, Firefox 1.1 percent, and Chrome 1 percent.

The EC started a probe of Microsoft's practice of bundling Internet Explorer with Windows going back to 1996 following a formal complaint by Norwegian browser maker Opera in December 2007. In January 2009, the EC's competition directorate delivered to Microsoft its "Statement of Objections" -- similar to an indictment -- regarding the bundling.

Rather than wait until the EC announced its decision, which would have imposed the EC's ruling, whatever it turned out to be, on the company, Microsoft began negotiating with the EC to settle last spring.

Early feedback on the ranking method for the ballot screen, including official feedback from Mozilla, though, caused Microsoft to resubmit the proposal with the browsers ordered alphabetically by company name.

So Microsoft's new proposed list (PDF) would be Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Microsoft IE, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera.

A placement advantage?

Since most western languages read from top down and left to right, that would cause a lot of users to simply choose the browser that was first -- at the top left -- which would give an unfair advantage to Apple Safari. Likewise, it would locate Mozilla Firefox in one of the two least desirable locations, Boriss said. It also would position IE at the very center of the screen.

"The ballot is not a good way to give users choice, and the first item on the ballot will always be given an advantage," the post continued.

Boriss suggested three other methods for arranging the screen that displays the top five browsers.

One way would be to calculate the order of the browsers each time using a randomization algorithm. Another, more simple method would arrange the browsers by market share but exclude Microsoft from the calculation, putting it always last on the top screen.

"A user can’t truly judge if a browser is right for them from a couple lines and a logo, so knowing what other users have chosen is actually not the worst way to make a decision," she said, defending the modified model using market share. "IE still gets the huge benefit of its logo, familiar to nearly everyone who will see the ballot."

A third method would compute the list using probabilities based on each browser's market share.

"For the first four spots, give each browser essentially the percentage chance of being first that they have of the total market share."

Of course, IE still finishes last -- although that may not turn out to be the case in real life.

Microsoft spokesperson Kevin Kutz told InternetNews.com, the company had no comment regarding the blog posting or the idea of modifying the browser ballot screen.

A Mozilla spokesperson was not available to comment in time for publication.

After the comment period expires, the EC will examine the feedback and decide whether any changes need to be made to the proposed settlement.