Microsoft's browser ballot screw-up cost Firefox 9M downloads

Mozilla details damage caused by rival's omission of browser ballot screen in the EU

Microsoft's 16-month browser ballot screw-up in the European Union cost Mozilla an estimated 8.8 million downloads of its Firefox browser, the open-source vendor's head lawyer said Tuesday.

Microsoft faces fines that could reach into the billions for omitting a browser choice screen it was supposed to show European users of Windows 7. The blunder began in late February 2011, when Microsoft shipped Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1), and ran through early July 2012, when authorities notified the company of the oversight.

According to Harvey Anderson, Mozilla's general counsel, Firefox's daily download average fell 63% from approximately 54,000 to a low of 20,000 before Microsoft rolled out a fix for the snafu last summer. After Microsoft updated EU users' Windows 7 PCs with a patch to restore the ballot screen, Firefox downloads increased 150% to an average of approximately 50,000, Anderson claimed.

During the more than 16 months when the ballot was not offered EU users, Mozilla "lost" between 6 and 9 million downloads. Anderson included a graph in his blog post, however, that put the impact at a more specific 8.8 million Firefox downloads.

Last week, the European Competition Commission -- the EU government's antitrust agency -- served Microsoft with formal charges for failing to display the required browser choice screen to systems upgraded to Windows 7 SP1. Previously, the Commission had said that some 28 million users in the EU had been shortchanged.

The browser ballot was the result of a deal Microsoft struck with the Commission in late 2009 after officials launched an investigation triggered by a complaint from Norwegian browser maker Opera Software. Opera accused Microsoft of manipulating the battle for browser share by tying Internet Explorer (IE) to Windows.

The settlement required Microsoft to display a screen in Windows that provided download links to other browsers, including Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox and Opera Software's Opera. Safari has since been dropped from the deal, as Apple has halted development of the Windows version.

Microsoft claimed that the omission was simply a "technical error," then apologized and quickly created an update to address the problem.

However, Microsoft blew a chance to correct its flub -- and save it from what may end up being massive fines -- just weeks after the release of Windows 7 SP1, when it ignored a tip from a customer who had noticed the missing browser ballot and reported that to the company's support staff.

Mozilla's decline in the share of the European market sharply accelerated during the stretch when Microsoft was not showing Windows 7 users the ballot.

Mozilla claims that Microsoft's browser ballot omission in the EU resulted in 8.8 million fewer downloads of Firefox than would otherwise likely have occurred. (Image: Mozilla.)

From March 2011 until June 2012, Firefox lost 7.5 percentage points of share in Europe, according to data from Irish metrics company StatCounter, an average monthly decline of nearly half a point. In the 16 months prior, Firefox lost just 2.3 percentage points, an average of 0.14 point.

In the three months since Microsoft reinstituted the ballot, Firefox's average slip has been three-tenths of a point, a 40% reduction from the 16 months when the choice screen was AWOL.

Other factors beside the missing ballot, however, clearly played a role in Firefox's decline, including the concurrent rise in Google's Chrome. During the March 2011 to June 2012 span, Chrome, which was also supposed to be on the ballot, grew its share by 13.7 percentage points, slightly more than the 16 months prior.

Nor did the omission of the browser choice screen keep Microsoft's own Internet Explorer (IE) safe from erosion, although its usage decline slowed by 27% during the 16 months when the ballot was not served to Windows 7 users.

While Anderson did not mention it, the vast majority of Mozilla's income comes from a search partnership with Google, which reportedly is worth $300 million annually to the open-source developers. Fewer downloads would likely translate into fewer users -- although not on a one-for-one basis -- which in turn would mean less revenue from those users searching with Google and clicking on its ads.

Microsoft has about three weeks remaining to respond to the Commission's charges, and can request an oral hearing to air its defense before regulators decide on a fine.

But Joaquin Almunia, the EU's head antitrust official, has talked tough ever since July.

"If companies enter into commitments, they must do what they have committed to do or face the consequences," Almunia said last week during a news conference to announce the charges against Microsoft. "Companies should be deterred from any temptation to renege on their promises or even to neglect their duties. This is why, when this happens, the Commission has the power to impose fines."

Almunia also told Microsoft that it had to offer a ballot display in Windows 8, the upgrade that launched Oct. 26, but that it had finished its investigation into similar charges about Windows RT, the tablet-oriented spin-off, and would not force the company to insert a screen there.

Microsoft promised to comply on Windows 8, and last week said it would push an update to the new OS by its Friday launch.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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