Microsoft has agreed to offer a "choice screen" that will allow Windows users to select as many as 11 Web browsers they choose to install on their PCs as an alternative or supplement to Internet Explorer. The agreement also allows PC makers to offer any Web browser as the default with the option of disabling IE.
"Millions of European consumers will benefit from this decision by having a free choice about which Web browser they use," said Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes in a statement issued by the European Commission. "Such choice will not only serve to improve people's experience of the Internet now but also act as an incentive for Web browser companies to innovate and offer people better browsers in the future."
Under the agreement, Microsoft will report to the EC within six months on its progress, and routinely thereafter. "This is an important day and a major step forward," said Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and senior vice president, in a statement.
While Microsoft's Internet Explorer is still by far the most widely deployed browser, its share has dropped to 63 percent, according to data released earlier this month by Net Applications. Competing makers of browsers have long maintained that offering choice would help extend the use of new features added to browsers.
"The browser wars have certainly been heating up again," said Redmonk analyst Michael Cote in an email, noting advances from Apple (Safari), Mozilla (Firefox), Google (Chrome) and Microsoft itself.
"If unleashed, we believe PC browsers could allow an exponential impact on Internet innovation," said Sundar Pichai, Google's vice president of product management, in a blog posting.
"With Google in the browser game with Chrome, you have to think (and hope) that they're looking at the EU's demands on Internet Explorer as guidance for how to avoid sticky situations with Chrome and their other efforts," Cote said.
In addition, Microsoft has agreed to provide developers, including those in the open source community, access to technical documentation to such key products as Windows, Windows Server, Office, Exchange and SharePoint.
"Microsoft will also support certain industry standards in its products and fully document how these standards are supported. Microsoft will make available legally-binding warranties that will be offered to third parties," Smith noted.