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Microsoft Pri0

Welcome to Microsoft Pri0: That's Microspeak for top priority, and that's the news and observations you'll find here from Seattle Times technology reporter Matt Day.

December 16, 2009 at 6:26 AM

Microsoft settles browser antitrust case with European Union

The European Union approved an agreement with Microsoft this morning that settles complaints the company exploited the dominance of its Windows operating system to gain users for its Web browser Internet Explorer.

In a news conference today in Brussels, European Commissioner for Competition Neelie Kroes said, “Now — for the first time in over a decade — Internet users in Europe will have an effective and unbiased choice between Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and competing Web browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari and Opera.” Here are her comments.

The European Commission, the antitrust regulator for the European Union, approved the five-year agreement after Microsoft agreed to provide a ballot box from which Windows users can choose among a variety of Web browsers.

Microsoft’s lead attorney, Brad Smith, said he was pleased by today’s resolution. “This brings to a close a long-standing chapter of often challenging antitrust issues for the company in Europe,” he said. “We’re very pleased. It obviously represents the culmination of over a decade of processes.” Here is a statement he released this morning.

The company also made changes in response to the commission’s concerns about interoperability of other Microsoft software.

The commission began investigating Microsoft in 2008 after browser developer Opera complained in late 2007.

“It is as if you went to the supermarket and they only offered you one brand of shampoo on the shelf, and all the other choices are hidden out the back, and not everyone knows about them,” Kroes said. “What we are saying today is that all the brands should be on the shelf.”

Kroes’ term as commission chair ends this year.

Microsoft and the commission negotiated this compromise over the past year, and it was tested in Europe before the commission’s decision today. The browser ballot screen will allow users to choose from the 12 most widely used browsers on the market.

Based on the testing feedback from competitors, Microsoft agreed to present the browsers in random order. The browser screen should be ready in mid-March 2010, Kroes said.

Smith said the changing of the browser order from alphabetical to random order was more about competitors’ concerns with each other than with Microsoft, since Apple’s browser would have been listed first on every ballot screen.

The company must report to the commission within six months on the implementation of the changes, then annually after that first report.

It is significant that the European Commission accepted Microsoft’s changes without levying a major fine. Last year, the commission fined Microsoft $1.4 billion for failing to comply with a 2004 antitrust order. The company is still appealing that fine.

The competitive landscape has changed significantly since Opera first complained. In 2002, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which used to dominate the market, has slipped to 64 percent in November, according to research firm Net Applications, due to the rise of competitors such as Mozilla’s Firefox.

Microsoft also competes with Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome and the Opera browser.

Smith emphasized what he felt was a sea change beginning this summer in the relationship between the EU and Microsoft. “I think we have a much stronger relationship with the European Union today,” he said.

Kroes, in her comments, also expressed optimism about their ability to get along. “I hope that today’s decision closes a long chapter in Microsoft’s sometimes uneasy relationship with the commission, and opens a new, more positive one,” she said.

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