Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Microsoft Gives Rival Browsers a Lift

PARIS — Rivals of Microsoft’s market-leading Web browser have attracted a flurry of interest since the company, fulfilling a regulatory requirement, started making it easier for European users of its Windows operating system to switch.

Mozilla, whose Firefox browser is the strongest competitor to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer worldwide, said that more than 50,000 people had downloaded Firefox via a “choice screen” that has been popping up on Windows-equipped computers in Europe since the end of last month. The screen displays links to a dozen browsers, including Explorer, Firefox, Google’s Chrome, Apple’s Safari and Opera.

Opera Software, based in Oslo, said downloads of its browser in Belgium, France, Britain, Poland and Spain had tripled since the screen began to appear.

“It’s definitely being taken up, so consumers are paying attention and taking advantage of the choice being offered to them,” said Thomas Vinje, legal counsel to the European Committee for Interoperable Systems, a lobbying group based in Brussels whose members include Opera.

It was Opera’s complaint to the European Commission that gave rise to an antitrust case against Microsoft that resulted in the company’s agreement last year to promote greater browser choice.

Microsoft said it was too early to tell whether the choice screen might prompt significant numbers of users to change. The digital ballot is being delivered over the Internet with software updates, and it is expected to take until mid-May to complete the process. The browser choice will also be presented to buyers of new Windows computers across the European Union for five years.

The commission has not publicly set targets for browser downloads or market shares. It said Friday that it had not yet received any results, though Microsoft has pledged to keep it informed.

The initiative is intended to address the commission’s finding that Microsoft unfairly packaged Explorer with Windows, the operating system used on a large majority of PCs worldwide, giving it an unfair control over most people’s main gateway to the Internet. The appearance of the screen has refocused attention on the battle for browser supremacy at a time when regulatory attention is increasingly focusing elsewhere, including the search-engine market.

Explorer remains the leading browser in Europe, as it is worldwide, though its market share is lower in Europe than in the United States and some other countries, and it has lost ground in recent years.

According to StatCounter, a Web analytics service, the three versions of Explorer currently in use had a combined 46 percent market share in Europe over the past year, compared with 58 percent worldwide. Firefox placed second in Europe, at 39 percent, and globally, at 31 percent. Trailing them in Europe were Opera, at 6 percent; Chrome, at 4 percent; and Safari, at 3 percent. No other browser reached more than 1 percent.

In advance of the introduction of the choice screen, Microsoft’s browser rivals stepped up marketing activity, seeing a chance to further dent Explorer’s former dominance.

Google decked out European subway systems with billboards promoting Chrome and has plugs for the browser on its search-engine home page.

While Chrome got off to a slow start, it appears to have gained several points of market share in recent months, both in Europe and elsewhere.

Mozilla, which has a particularly strong presence in European countries like Germany and Poland, recently introduced a Web site called “Open to Choice,” among other marketing initiatives. “Getting people to make choices is extremely significant for us,” said John Lilly, chief executive of Mozilla Corp., which oversees development and distribution of Firefox on behalf of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation. “This is only the first stage in a long campaign of informing people about browser choice.”

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