Apple gets best spot in EU browser ballot screen, Mozilla says

Mozilla again slammed the browser “ballot screen” proposal that Microsoft’s made to European antitrust regulators, saying that the voting will be skewed Apple’s way because its Safari browser will be the first choice on the list.

In a long blog post Thursday , Jenny Boriss, a Firefox user experience designer, argued that Microsoft’s ballot screen , which has been given preliminary approval by the European Commission, is unfair.

Microsoft has proposed listing five browsers on the first screen of the ballot, including its own Internet Explorer (IE), Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome, Mozilla’s Firefox and Opera Software’s Opera. Although Microsoft first suggested that the browsers be ranked in order of market share from left to right, the commission objected, since its antitrust action was triggered by complaints that Microsoft stifled competition by bundling IE with Windows.

Instead, the ballot will list the browsers in alphabetical order, ranked by the name of the browser maker. That gives Apple the first spot, followed by Google, Microsoft, Mozilla and Opera.

“This ordering is about the worst option possible,” said Boriss. “Microsoft wrote in their proposal that ‘nothing in the design and implementation of the Ballot Screen and the presentation of competing web browsers will express a bias for a Microsoft web browser or any other web browser,’ but this is exactly what the current design does. Windows users presented with the current design will tend to make only two choices: IE because they are familiar with it, or Safari because it is the first item.”

Boriss was especially hard on Apple. “The disproportionate advantage to Safari is what really makes this design poor,” she said, citing several studies that claim first position in a ballot gives an advantage, in part because Western voters scan from upper left to lower right when they read.

The problem with putting Apple first, continued Boriss, is that Safari on Windows is a mess. “Safari has the smallest market share of the five other browsers,” she said. “Frankly, Safari is a good browser for Apple computers, but Apple hasn’t put much effort to make it competitive on Windows. It’s just not their priority. So, by listing Safari first, the ballot is presenting as the recommended item the browser that is least likely to be the one the user wants.”

According to Web metrics vendor Net Applications, Safari on Windows accounted for about 0.3 percent of all browsers used in September. IE, Firefox and Chrome, meanwhile, owned 65.7 percent, 23.8 percent and 3.2 percent, of the market share respectively. Net Applications, however, does not split out Firefox on Windows, but lumps together all Firefox users, whether they’re running the browser on Windows, Mac OS X or Linux.

IE runs exclusively and Chrome predominantly on Windows; Chrome’s only production version is for Windows, although some users are running the Mac and Linux developer builds of Google’s browser.

Not surprisingly, Boriss’ alternative idea would be to rank the browsers in order of share, with the exception of IE, which would presumably then be in the fifth, or last spot. “A user can’t truly judge if a browser is right for them from a couple lines and a logo, so knowing what other users have chosen is actually not the worst way to make a decision,” she said. That would put Firefox in the favored first spot, with Chrome, Opera and Safari following.

Another way to present the ballot screen would be to randomize the order of the first five browsers each time a user encounters it. “[That] does not provide users with any information about what browsers are preferred, but at least it does not give undo advantage to an unpopular browser each time,” Boriss said.

The IE antitrust action dates back to December 2007, when Opera formally complained to EU officials about Microsoft tying the browser to its market-dominating Windows operating system. The EU commission charged Microsoft with violating antitrust laws in January 2009, after which Microsoft made several concessions, including a plan that at one point would have meant shipping Windows 7 minus a browser.

In July, Microsoft advanced the ballot screen concept , which EU officials had earlier said was their preference.

Mozilla has been the most vocal of Microsoft’s rivals in its criticism of the ballot screen. Two months ago, company executives slammed the proposal and demanded changes.

The EU has solicited comments, which must be filed by Nov. 9, and will either approve the ballot screen proposal soon after that or require Microsoft to make more modifications.

Microsoft’s chief counsel, Brad Smith, said this month that his company was “very pleased” with the EU’s decision to move into the last phase of the case.

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