According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, antitrust regulators in the European Union (EU) are preparing to require Microsoft to bundle competing browsers in Windows. This sanction would effectively turn the EU's original complaint against the software giant on its head: "Because Microsoft has gained an unfair advantage over browser makers by bundling its own browser with Windows, the company will have to now bundle competing products, as well."
If this happens, it means the EU has chosen a far more drastic remedy than requiring Microsoft to unbundle Internet Explorer (IE) from Windows, a remedy that itself seems a bit far-reaching, even for the regulation-happy EU. But there could be a simple reason for the shift: The EU tried an unbundling strategy with Microsoft before, and that effort failed miserably.
In 2004, the EU required Microsoft to unbundle Windows Media Player (WMP) from Windows. The software giant complied by creating special "N" versions of Windows XP (and, later, Windows Vista) that didn't include the WMP software. But Microsoft also sold normal versions of Windows alongside the N versions—for the same price. Virtually no consumers ever purchased N versions of Windows.
Although some browser makers have publicly opined that offering competing products in Windows would be difficult—Microsoft briefly offered a RealNetworks product in Windows a decade ago, but it quickly became so out of date that it was more hindrance than benefit to RealNetworks—others believe that this might be the only way to provide real choice to consumers. Google has been especially vocal about the situation and wants Microsoft to offer these competing choices via its Windows Update mechanism.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the EU might require Microsoft to include a "ballot screen" in Windows on which consumers can choose and then download a browser. Microsoft is reportedly preparing a legal defense against this requirement in which it questions the EU's ability to require such a thing. Microsoft continues to publicly profess that it will adhere to EU law.
A final ruling in the EU case is still weeks away, but that could be expedited since Microsoft recently revealed that it wouldn't present oral arguments in the case. The company was originally scheduled to appear at a hearing June 3-5.