Microsoft's decision to make Internet Explorer 8 the default browser on computers where the user elected an express installation raises questions about the software giant's compliance with a 6-year-old antitrust settlement, a lawyer for some of the plaintiffs in the case said on Thursday.
Microsoft recently has changed the way IE8 is installed as part of a high priority update, in response to concerns raised by other browser vendors and plaintiffs in the antitrust case. But Steven Houck, a lawyer representing a group of states that sued Microsoft, called the company's actions "rather troubling", given that there were no default installation problems with IE7.
Microsoft linking IE to the Windows operating system was one of the major complaints in the antitrust lawsuit filed by a group of states and the US Department of Justice, Houck said during an antitrust settlement compliance hearing in US District Court for the District of Columbia. The change in the default settings also happened at a "particularly sensitive time", he added. "For the first time now, really, we're starting to see some not insignificant competition in that [browser] space."
Browsers are a more important piece of software that ever before, he added, as cloud computing becomes popular. Browsers are the way for users to interact with the cloud, he said.
Microsoft quickly agreed to change the IE8 settings after the complaints were raised in May, said Microsoft lawyer Charles 'Rick' Rule. Microsoft believed it was giving customers a choice in default browsers when it included an option to set the default in IE8's custom install, he said, but the company has now changed the express install so that it asks users whether they want IE8 as their default browser.
Microsoft changed the way IE8 was installed to avoid giving users too many screens to deal with during installation, he said. The express install made it clear the default browser was being changed, he added.
"This is another example when we try to listen to feedback; we try to listen to the plaintiffs," Rule said. "When good comments are made that affect consumers, we're ready to make those changes."
Microsoft would have made the change even if it wasn't under antitrust compliance monitoring, Rule said.
Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly declined to say whether she thought Microsoft's IE8 installation was a violation of the antitrust settlement she approved in November 2002, four years after the DOJ and a group of states brought the antitrust lawsuit.
But she questioned why Microsoft had changed the installation procedure since IE7, and she called the linking of IE and Windows a "clear issue in the case".
"I think it's important for users to have a clear choice in browsers," she added.
Kollar-Kotelly also said she was pleased with Microsoft's progress with fixing errors in technical documentation for Windows communications protocols that the settlement requires Microsoft to share. The continued errors in the technical documentation have been the major reason the judge has twice extended the consent decree that sets the antitrust rules that Microsoft must follow. Originally, the decree was scheduled to end in November 2007, and now it is scheduled to end in May 2011.
Houck, and lawyers for the DOJ and a second group of states all said they were satisfied with Microsoft's efforts to fix the error, even as a court-appointed technical committee has stepped up its identification of errors.
As of June 30, there were 2,407 outstanding errors in the technical documentation, and there were 2,355 errors as of July 31. On March 31, there were 1,716 identified errors in the 30,000-page technical documentation.
Microsoft, while keeping up with the new errors found, needs to start addressing the backlog, Houck said. Rule said the company expects to fix a number of backlogged errors in the coming months.