Microsoft will present users with a 'ballot screen' through which they will be able to choose whether to use its Internet Explorer web browser or a competitor's software, and through which they will be able to disable the Microsoft software.
The company has told the European Commission that it is prepared to offer consumers that choice in settlement of a competition law case the Commission is pursuing against it.
In January the Commission published a statement of objections outlining why it thinks that Microsoft's inclusion of Internet Explorer in its near-universally-used Windows computer operating systems is an abuse of a dominant market position.
Microsoft has now said that it is prepared to offer consumers a ballot screen when their computers are first switched on which they can use to choose a competing browser and disable Explorer.
It said that in the meantime when it begins selling the newest version of its operating system, Windows 7, it will require computer makers to include a special European version of the system that it believes complies with Commission demands.
"We believe that if ultimately accepted, this proposal will fully address the European competition law issues relating to the inclusion of Internet Explorer in Windows and interoperability with our high-volume products," said Microsoft's general counsel Brad Smith. "This would mark a big step forward in addressing a decade of legal issues and would be good news for European consumers and our partners in the industry."
"The Commission welcomes this proposal, and will now investigate its practical effectiveness in terms of ensuring genuine consumer choice," said a statement from the European Commission, which enforces competition law in the EU.
"Under the proposal, Windows 7 would include Internet Explorer, but the proposal recognises the principle that consumers should be given a free and effective choice of web browser, and sets out a means – the ballot screen – by which Microsoft believes that can be achieved," said the Commission. "In addition [computer manufacturers] would be able to install competing web browsers, set those as default and disable Internet Explorer should they so wish."
The Commission said that it was glad that Microsoft had agreed to a mechanism by which users could choose an alternative browser, because the solution could have been as bad as the problem.
"The Commission was concerned that, should Microsoft's conduct prove to have been abusive, Microsoft's intention to separate Internet Explorer from Windows, without measures such as a ballot screen, would not necessarily have achieved greater consumer choice in practice and would not have been an effective remedy," it said.
Microsoft said that it would try to make its existing systems comply with and EU court's orders on separation in the meantime. "While the Commission solicits public comment and considers this proposal, we are committed to ensuring that we are in full compliance with European law and our obligations under the 2007 Court of First Instance ruling," it said.
Microsoft also made promises to the Commission about interoperability, which is the ability of other people's systems and software to operate with Microsoft's.
"Microsoft has also made proposals in relation to disclosures of interoperability information that would improve the interoperability between third party products and Windows and Windows Server," said the Commission. "Again, these proposals require further investigation before the Commission reaches any conclusion as to the next steps."
"Like the Internet Explorer proposal, the interoperability measures we are offering involve significant change by Microsoft," said Smith. "They build on the Interoperability Principles announced by Microsoft in February 2008, which were also based on extensive discussions with the Commission, and they include new steps including enforceable warranty commitments."