Last updated: December 16, 2009 7:28 pm

Brussels accepts Microsoft’s browser offer

Personal computer users in Europe will be presented with a ground-breaking choice of internet browsers from March next year, after Europe’s top competition watchdog on Wednesday accepted legal commitments from Microsoft to address allegations that it unlawfully “bundles” its software products.

The deal, which has been in the works since July, takes a significant step towards the end of a decade-long battle between the European Commission and the US software group and means that Microsoft – which has been fined a total of €1.68bn ($2.4bn) by Brussels on the issue – escapes further financial penalties.

“I hope today’s decision closes a long chapter in Microsoft’s sometimes uneasy relationship with the Commission, and opens a new positive one,” said Neelie Kroes, EU competition commissioner.

The agreement comes in response to a 2007 complaint to the Commission that the software group illegally bundles its Internet Explorer browser with its dominant Windows operating system. The complaint was filed by Opera, a much smaller Norwegian browser company, but was soon backed by other competitors – including Google.

Microsoft is promising to offer PC-users a screen within the Windows software allowing them to choose between a dozen rival browsers, to be offered in a random order.

The agreement comes as browsers become increasingly central to users’ navigation of the internet. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is used for about 56 per cent of global internet traffic, followed by Mozilla’s Firefox at about 32 per cent and Opera’s 2 per cent, just ahead of Google and Apple’s Safari, according to StatCounter, the web analytics company.

“The browser is becoming a platform in itself. People’s experience of the internet has become reliant on the performance of the browser,” said Sheri McLeish, analyst at Forrester Research.

Regulators hope the deal will stimulate technological advancements. Sundar Pichai, Google’s vice-president of product management, suggested speed and security in search would become key determinants in customer choice.

However, it is hard to tell how quickly PC users will react. Google’s Chrome browser has struggled to claim market share since its launch about a year ago, and is seeking deals with computer manufacturers to get its browser pre-loaded onto machines.

Separately, Microsoft has made public commitments about interoperability between some of its main products – such as Windows and Office – and other third-party products. These are not formal, legally binding commitments, although they do include warranty pledges to third parties, meaning that they could be privately enforced.

The Commission said it would monitor the pledges carefully, with Ms Kroes suggesting a resolution might be reached next year.

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