Browser makers Mozilla and Opera have accused Microsoft of force feeding Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) to users with Windows Update and silently changing the default browser on PCs.
Both companies, which make Firefox and Opera, respectively, are involved in the European Union's anti-trust action against Microsoft, which was accused in January of "shielding" IE from competition by bundling the browser with Windows.
"Using the Windows Update channel to update Internet Explorer in any way that undermines user choices is a clear example of how Microsoft uses its monopoly position to damage competition in related products," said Mitchell Baker, the chairman of Mozilla.
Hakon Wium Lie, Opera Software's chief technology officer, echoed Baker, citing his company's long-standing issue with Microsoft's distribution method for IE. "We're concerned both about the bundling of IE with Windows, and about Microsoft using Windows Update to reset user choice," said Lie.
Baker and Lie took exception to the process that Microsoft is using to offer IE8 to customers running the older IE6 and IE7 editions. When users receive an upgrade offer to IE8 via Windows Update, accept the offer and install the browser, then select the "Use express settings" option, IE8 becomes the default browser on the machine, even if a rival had been previously pegged as such.
Microsoft has defended the practice. "Users continue to have complete control over IE8 settings and behaviour throughout the first-run experience and ongoing use," argued Eric Hebenstreit, IE lead program manager, in an entry to a company blog. "For example, if IE is not the default browser in Windows, the option to change this setting is presented in a wizard that runs the first time IE8 is launched."
(Hebenstreit included a modified screenshot of the IE8 setup dialog that omitted the "Default Browser: Internet Explorer" item from the seven-item list. Microsoft was not immediately able to explain why Hebenstreit used an edited screenshot.)
Lie countered Hebenstreit's claims. "[Express settings] does show that IE8 will become the default browser, but only if you read the small print," Lie said. "And it's the second-to-last item. Most users will use express, which has clearly been designed by Microsoft so [users] shouldn't even think about those things."
The alternative, which is to pick "Choose custom settings," is, added Lie, "a laborious series of questions." Among the questions that appear when a user chooses custom settings is one that explicitly asks whether to make IE8 the default browser.
Microsoft began pushing the new browser to users via Automatic Updates last week; Hebenstreit's defence was prompted by multiple blog posts that criticised the practice.
The EU's Competition Commission case against IE stemmed from a December 2007 complaint by Opera, which said IE "harmed the web" and demanded Microsoft unbundle the browser and adhere to web standards.
Since January, several rivals, including Mozilla and Google - the latter because of its Chrome browser - joined the case as third-party participants. Several weeks ago, a trade group that includes other competitors, among them Adobe, IBM and Oracle, were also given access to the allegations.
Although EU regulators have not spelled out what they may demand of Microsoft, the agency has hinted it could fine the company, force it to allow users to choose alternate browsers or require it to disable IE.
Opera wants the commission to make Microsoft offer alternate browsers using the same Windows Update service the latter relies on to upgrade IE. "That's one possible remedy," said Lie, who called it a "must-carry" solution, meaning Windows would have to provide multiple browsers, not just IE.
In Lie's scenario, Windows Update would offer a number of choices as optional downloads by providing small executables that would in turn download and install Firefox, Chrome, Opera or other browsers. "Or Windows Update could pre-fetch all those browsers," Lie said, and have them ready to install when the user chooses which browser to run.
"We've suggested this to the EU," Lie confirmed.
Microsoft will have the opportunity to defend itself against the anti-trust charges in a hearing before the commission 3-5 June. It has already filed a lengthy written response to the accusations.