Microsoft rivals advise EC on an antitrust remedy

A few pre-loaded browsers or quick links to all browsers are two possibilities under consideration

It sounds odd, but the European Commission's solution to the problem caused by Microsoft bundling its Internet Explorer browser into the Windows OS appears to be more, rather than less, bundling.

If IE is in the OS on its own, it has an unfair advantage over rival browsers such as Mozilla's Firefox, Opera, Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari because people are generally averse to downloading software if they don't absolutely need to and make do with what's already on their desktops.

So, put all of those rival browsers, and perhaps the numerous morphed open-source versions of them as well, into Windows and bingo, the playing field is level. That seems to be the logic applied by the Commission, Europe's top antitrust regulator, as it prepares to slap Microsoft with another humiliating antitrust ruling, expected later this year.

A list of browsers should be presented on a ballot screen that would be installed onto PCs together with the Windows OS. This would allow users to decide which browser they want.

But it's not that simple, as the Commission is about to find out. At the end of this week it receives responses to a questionnaire it distributed among PC makers and software firms, asking for advice on how to craft the remedy to the browser market problem. Two very different answers based around the creation of the ballot screen are emerging from the replies being drafted.

The first involves picking the five most popular browsers and preloading them so that they are installed with Windows. The selected browsers would appear next to each other in a horizontal line on the ballot screen, which would pop up around the time the user first attempts to access the Internet. The user would then be prompted to choose a default browser.

The other alternative is to have an all inclusive list of all available browsers on the market. A typical browser uses around 6MB of memory. If there are, say, 15 browsers out there that means well over a gigabyte of memory, most of which is wasted because the user will never need all the browsers.

The idea being considered is to put links to all the browsers on the ballot page rather than to preload them all. The links would allow a user to download the browser of their choosing from the Internet.

The advantage of this remedy is that the Commission wouldn't be put in the position of having to choose between rival browsers.

But it raises an obvious problem: How do users gain Internet access to download a browser if they don't already have a browser to connect them in the first place?

One idea is to allow browser makers to compete to have their software preinstalled on PC manufacturers' desktop and laptop computers. But this favors the wealthiest players in the market: Microsoft and Google, which would be able to outbid all others with ease.

Some lawyers fear that if the Commission chooses this option and Google secured this privileged position for its Chrome browser it would simply replace a Microsoft monopoly with a Microsoft-Google duopoly, which in the long term would be equally harmful to consumers.

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