Proposed Microsoft – EC Settlement

August 17th, 2009

A few weeks ago Microsoft and the EC announced they are discussing a settlement proposal. Asa Dotzler did an evaluation of the proposal in view of the principles we have previously, noting both items that appear promising and those that appear weak. In all things the implementation details — all the way to the most mind-numbing level of specificity — will have an immense impact on the proposal’s effectiveness, so we’ll have to wait and see what those details turn out to be. Here I’ll outline a couple of aspects where the proposal itself could use improvement.

The overall point that may get lost is that — even if everything in the currently proposed settlement is implemented in the most positive way — IE will still have a unique and uniquely privileged position on Windows installations.

  • It is always there, often with prominent placement in the user interface. Choosing another browser as a default doesn’t change this.  Contrast this with all other browsers who aren’t available without separate installation.
  • Choosing another browser as a “default” does NOT mean that the other browser takes the place of IE. For example, the IE logo (“shortcut”) still remains unchanged on the desktop. The shortcut / logo of the browser the user has selected does not replace this, it is added elsewhere. As a result, the familiar location remains IE, not the user’s choice.
  • IE appears to retain other privileged positions in the user interface, depending on the exact windows operating system configuration one uses. The most important of these is probably in the Taskbar of Windows 7, which contains IE prominently. Microsoft has described the Taskbar as the “beachfront property of the Windows OS” — it’s next to the Start menu and you see it even when your desktop is covered with all your program windows.

Nothing we’ve seen suggests these items will change when a person chooses to make a different browser his or her default. These shortcuts back to IE remain unless the user makes another browser his or her default and then figures out how to “turn off” IE.

A second way in which IE remains uniquely privileged is the difference between having a piece of software on one’s machine and needing to download, install and make something your default. This may seem irrelevant to those of us who live and breath Internet software, but it’s a significant barrier for a lot of people. IE doesn’t face this issue since it’s on Windows machines when people receive them. The ballot could do a better job of reducing this difference. Right now the ballot is about downloading software. It could be designed to help people get further in the process of downloading, installing, opening and making the new software the default. As proposed, we expect to see many people who want other browsers get lost in the process before they actually succeed in making an alternative browser their main browsing tool.

A third way in which IE retains a uniquely privileged position is the Windows update system. It makes sense to include IE updates in this system, even if a different browser is the default — it’s important not to have “dead” pieces of old software on one’s machine for security reasons. So we do not take the position that the Windows Update system should exclude IE. However, a few safeguards for protecting the prior choice of another browser should be in place. Most important, if IE presents itself to the user as part of an automatically triggered update process, it should close immediately after the update process completes. It should not use this Windows update process as an opportunity to ask to become the default browser.

Another way IE remains privileged is that it looks like potentially all Microsoft products other than Office 2007 may still include hard-coded links to IE. This appears to be true even for the upcoming release of Office. This is the kind of “remedy” that so often seem ludicrous in hindsight. It is also at odds with a person who has already chosen to use another browser.

Comments more specifically tied to the exact language of the documents can be found at Harvey Anderson’s blog.

The importance of the myriad of details makes it very difficult to predict how effective the proposed remedies will be, or the extent of any  side-effects. In any case, addressing the issues raised above would improve the proposed remedy significantly.


Skip past the sidebar