Microsoft Browser Choice screen rant

I know this is old news, but it still annoys me. Just for those who have not heard, this useful summary of the legal background to Browser Choice (rather than the technical details) describes the decision:

In December, the European Commission and Microsoft arrived at a resolution of a number of long-standing competition law issues. Microsoft made a legally binding commitment that PC manufacturers and users will continue to be able to install any browser on Windows, to make any browser the default browser, and to turn access to Internet Explorer on or off. In addition, Microsoft agreed to use Windows Update to provide a browser choice screen to Windows users in Europe who are running Internet Explorer as their default browser.

So, when I install shiny new Windows 7 machines for my clients with a perfectly serviceable browser (IE8) with some great security features such as protected mode, I make sure the Windows Update has brought everything up to date and BAM! An icon appears on their desktop and prompts them to choose what browser they want.

So I choose IE, delete the icon and everyone is happy.

This is a complete waste of everyone’s time and money. The users who want an alternative still go and download the browser of their choice. Most don’t bother. Making a bad choice from the popup screen and deciding a while later you want to switch, or revert to IE is just a waste of people’s time, and in business this time will cost money. Across Europe this hidden cost will be huge.

The choice screen is currently only being pushed to users in UK, Belgium and France, but later will cover the whole of the European Economic Area. Just like the pointless “Windows N” without media player, this panders to niche software vendors without delivering any real value to anyone that cares. Pushing this out via Windows Update will only serve to confuse huge numbers of consumers. Many consumers are perfectly happy with the browser, media player, calculator and notepad that come with their computer. A few are not, and may go out and freely choose to install any software they wish, and pretty easily make it their default. Should we take away the simplicity of buying a PC, turning it on and using it? Why not strip out all of these free applications and make people go and download only the ones they choose? Once upon a time it was seen as a great idea that Microsoft (and Apple, and anyone else) gave away free software with their OS so you could just get up and running; this is now seen as anti-competitive.

There is lots of media buzz around Firefox, Chrome and other alternatives. Anyone that cares has probably read about these and can easily find out more and make their own choice. Presenting them with a screen in this way makes it feel like they have to make a choice, and then gives them options which are virtually impossible to distinguish – the fastest, shiniest, safest, most standards-compliant, most popular browser. How is any of this helping them to make an informed decision?

Next time you buy a box of cornflakes should it have a money-off voucher on the side which gives you a discount from any brand of breakfast cereal? Should it have helpful descriptions so you can choose an alternative to your normal shopping option? How would they differentiate themselves? The tastiest? Crispiest? Sugariest? Healthiest?

Is Internet Explorer really all that bad anyway?

Yes, I know some users will never hear about, or understand, or care enough to change their browser to an alternative. So what? IE8 is really a pretty good browser. I’ve been a Firefox user for years, and still use it as my main browser on a regular basis, mainly for some of the add-ons like NoScript and AdBlock Plus, but I do find myself using IE more often for sites that don’t load properly. In fact, the main thing which keeps me from using IE8 as my default browser is probably that I use IE for my Dynamics CRM work, and it is much easier for me to mentally separate by application than merely by tabs or sessions. The jump list for IE on Windows 7 makes more sense than for FF (frequent sites rather than local pages) and the ability to jump straight to a tab or open window from a list would be useful if I didn’t tend to have several dozen open tabs at any given time. I do find that Firefox seems to recover better than IE from crashes (of the app or of Windows) and get my tabs back more reliably (my laptop sometimes locks up when undocking and has to be forcibly powered off and cold started, and FF usually picks up where it left off).

I understand that publicly funded institutions like the BBC should not be in the business of advertising, and need to have disclaimers like “other listings magazines are available” (just in case you did not know there are alternatives to the Radio Times because you have lived in a cave and never visited a newsagent or supermarket in the last 25 years). I just don’t get why this should apply to a company whose prime objective is (and should be) to increase shareholder value. It’s that simple – their shareholders want to earn money, not make the world a fluffier warmer cuddlier place.

I tried Opera a year or so ago and at the time it was no better than Firefox (and worse in some ways), so inertia won out and I stuck with what I had been using for a few years. I would need a compelling reason to change, and I have not seen one yet from Opera. IE8 is beginning to convince me that Microsoft has the best alternative for me. Firefox went from nothing to holding a significant market share. Google Chrome is following nicely, albeit with a much bigger marketing budget and established brand.

Arguments may be made about which browser is the most secure – for me probably the biggest reason choose one over another right now since drive-by malware infections seem to be getting more frequent and worse to remove. There is certainly a discussion to be had about whether the same ruling should be made about Apple’s software bundling – I don’t care if they ship Safari and IE, should they not also be forced to provide the same breadth of choice as MS? What about their productivity applications? Should you get the choice to install OpenOffice (or some other third party option)? I have nothing against Apple, but they do seem remarkably immune to these sorts of legal challenges (because of their market share) when they are actually a much more closed shop bundling hardware and software together.

I wish the European Commission had better things to do with their time and my taxes than this kind of nonsense. I wonder if it makes any difference that the company making the noise about it (Opera) is European, and they felt duty bound to stand up to the perceived might of a US software giant.

What about non-MS applications bundled with new PCs?

A much better use of their time would be considering banning PC manufacturers from bundling trialware with PCs, or at least restricting this in a variety of possible ways:

  • all trialware must come NOT installed, but give the user the choice to install it as part of their setup. This is NOT the same as giving them a choice not to register and run it.
  • trialware must be free for at least the period of warranty of the hardware, usually at least a year
  • before installing, the consumer should be told the current cost of continuing their subscription for longer than that trial
  • if we can’t force them to not install it in the first place, there must be penalties for having uninstall routines which fail since the hardware is not fit for purpose with a half-uninstalled Norton suite on it which prevents other AV products working properly. Been there, sworn at that. Forcing me to download a separate removal tool is not an option unless you pay for my time in doing this. About £100 penalty should suffice.

I even object to bundling of unnecessary applications, browser toolbars, gadgets and other crapware, and double FAIL points for those which insist on trying to update themselves every day. Some are arguably designed to get the most out of your hardware (such as a utility to selectively switch off WLAN, Bluetooth or 3G connections), while others are just generic fluff. If a system builder installs Google toolbar I am surely less likely to feel a need for Yahoo toolbar. Isn’t this just the same anti-competitive behaviour MS is being accused of? Please at least give me the choice at the time of purchase to avoid all non-essential apps, especially those I could easily install later for free if I choose to. And while we are on the subject, Acrobat reader is NOT an essential app, and in light of recent security vulnerabilities, not far away from installing a backdoor for malware.

What do you think? Is this a big waste of money or an important decision for fair business practices? What browser(s) are you using right now and why?

6 Responses to Microsoft Browser Choice screen rant

  1. dapxin says:

    Opera all the way. It kicks ass! if you loom around enough to discover its sexiest **efficiency 5***** features.

    Download it again, and try out these 2.
    – mouse gestures.
    – Operalink.
    Email filters.

    You will be blown away

  2. Adam Vero says:

    Well, I’m prepared to give it a go, and have just downloaded 10.53. I’m not really sure it is going to offer me much more. Headline features such as “really fast javascript” won’t help much since I do most of my browsing with NoScript on, and only enable javascript when really necessary (usually for simple things like posting blog comments, where I don’t really think speed is a huge issue). I concede that if I was a big web apps user, or used a browser to read my GMail then it might help on those sites, but I’m not (I use Outlook to POP/SMTP GMail instead).
    I can’t see mouse gestures being a big thing for me – I would much rather use keyboard shortcuts than have to pick up my mouse and draw strange shapes. Doubly so when using my laptop on my lap (odd concept I know), trackpad is not the best option here. If I had a tablet then gestures might make more sense.
    Operalink – hmm, let’s me share my stuff between my machines. I have one primary machine and very occasionally use another, eg if staying with family and my battery is dead. Really not sure if putting my favourites and typed address history in the cloud is sufficiently advantageous to outweigh possible privacy issues.
    I don’t see what email filters do – is this related to using Opera’s built in email client? If so, then again Outlook 2010 is going to kill that idea dead in it’s tracks – I get Outlook Anywhere (aka RPC/HTTP), several Exchange mailboxes and POP accounts from two different providers, integration with Dynamics CRM and 100% offline access to everything I have done. I really don’t think a browser is going to replace this.
    Maybe for some users there are some funky features which people find really helpful. Maybe it’s super fast. But I think people should be free to discover this for themselves and not have the EU sticking their noses in where it they are not really needed.

  3. dapxin says:

    well, In the end, they are tools – you use them, the way you see fit to get the job done.

    I can see the argument that the EU should have better things to do, but Ignorance only thrives were people are either unaware, or not made aware.

    I dont think many people would be swayed by some random ballot box to try new stuff. The best chance might just be ‘hearing’ of the alternatives.

    Everyone would always have their favourite tools but I guess Opera -like every business entity – has to do whatever it takes to compete….

  4. Adam Vero says:

    But in this instance, what it takes to compete is to have hundreds of thousands of pounds/Euros of taxpayers’ money spent to try to increase the market share of a tiny company.

  5. dapxin says:

    hehehe, democracy, define…:0

  6. Adam Vero says:

    Just to be clear, I choose IE8 as the default for one particular client where I often don’t get to meet the users who are not office-based as the kit is shipped out to them. IE is the most obvious choice for familiarity, but I do nothing to prevent them installing faster, more secure or better standards-compliant browsers if they choose.

    A better use of EU funds would be backing this and making it mandatory for all government web sites:
    (by the way, this is a joke, just like the browser choice screen is)

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