Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 is the slowest of the major browsers on the market, but it (along with its previous editions) is also currently still clinging to almost 60 percent market share. Some say the large market share is because it's relatively secure (despite a large number of attacks due to its major market share) and because its easily managed with IT software. None of that explains the high consumer usage, though, as the general public typically isn't overly informed when it comes to security and doesn't use any sort of IT management tools.
Norway-based Opera Software, who manufactures a popular third-party browser, complained that the reason Microsoft dominated in this increasingly lucrative market was not as a result of merit, but rather via anticompetitive techniques -- by bundling Internet Explorer with its ubiquitous Windows OS. It successfully petitioned European Union antitrust regulators to mandate Microsoft to adopt a "ballot screen" approach with Windows, giving users a free pick from a variety of browsers. That feature went online this week.
The early results appear to validate Opera's claims that Microsoft's advantage was artificially produced. Describes Rolf Assev, Opera's chief strategy officer, "Since the browser choice screen rollout, Opera downloads have more than tripled in major European countries, such as Belgium, France, Spain, Poland and the UK."
Why does Opera care about browser market share so much? Opera was among the first browser makers to broker a deal with a search engine giant (in its case Google) to auction off the browser's default search engine. As search engines lead to advertising revenue, and many users rely on the default search, such deals typically bring tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars to the browser maker. The size of the deal typically depends, though, on the number of active users, so getting users to download your browser is critical.
The browser ballot screen was delivered to EU users via Windows Update. When the users update, if their default browser is Internet Explorer (which is the case if you just installed Windows), the customer will receive an Internet Explorer Window that prompts them to pick between 12 browsers, including Microsoft's own Internet Explorer. Opera is included among the randomly generated list along with Google Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.
Despite the apparent success of the experiment, and gains for third party browser makers like Opera and Mozilla, some aren't entirely satisfied with the results. Shawn Hardin -- chief executive of Flock, Europe's sixth largest browser -- says that even though there's a scroll bar to find more options (lesser known browsers), that most customers won't realize that there's more picks than the ones initially positioned onscreen in the frame (Opera, IE, Chrome, Firefox, and Safari). That, he says, isn't fair.
He comments, "Frankly, nobody knows there are more than five options. We see this as unfair."
Despite this and some minor other complaints, the larger third parties, Microsoft, and the European Union antitrust regulators all seem relatively pleased with the browser ballot system.
Given this success, one can't help but wonder whether the ballot screen could be making its way to the U.S. sometime in the near future.