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Microsoft's Automatic Update - the way to browser competition?

Chrome, Firefox, and Opera ride with IE

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Microsoft could restore competition in the browser market overnight by throwing open its Automatic Update service to Google, Mozilla, and Opera.

Opera Software's chief technology officer told The Reg that the inclusion of rivals to Internet Explorer in Microsoft's software update service would mean Microsoft reaches millions of old PCs - in addition to new machines - offering choice to new and existing users.

Håkon Wium Lie said: "I think software update is very feasible, and will quickly remedy the situation."

Lie was speaking after it emerged the Commission is thinking about ordering Microsoft and PC manufacturers to "obligate" users choose their browser when setting up a machine. Microsoft revealed what's going on in a warning to shareholders as part of its latest 10-Q filing.

The Commission is considering the move in the wake of an investigation that was sparked a year ago following a complaint by Opera, which said Microsoft was abusing its dominant position by tying its browser to Windows and by not following web protocols.

Microsoft now has two months to issue a written response to the directorate general and can request a hearing.

In its original complaint Opera proposed one remedy would be that Windows must carry rival browsers. Lie said the download option is something it's spoken about in the past.

Should the Commission conclude Microsoft broke the law and mandate it deliver rival browsers via Automatic Update, Lie outlined two options that could work. One is where Automatic Update download an agent that would then ask which browser the user wanted to install, while the other would see a range of browsers downloaded with the user asked to chose which they'd like to run.

It would almost certainly take the weight of a Commission order, backed up by a successful legal case and fines, to force Microsoft into opening the Automatic Update channel to IE rivals. Online updates are the quickest way to deliver new versions of Microsoft's software to PCs, and Microsoft will use Automatic Update along with its regular IE web site as channels for it to push and for users to pull down new copies of IE - IE 8 - later this year.

Speaking of IE 8, Lie said he believed that - even with Microsoft promising a standards compliant version of its browser - it'll take a legal ruling to enforce genuine standards on IE.

The new browser will feature two rendering engines, one so it can read sites built using current web standards like CSS 2.1 and another so users can continue to view legacy sites built for the non-standards compliant versions of Microsoft's browser.

Also, sites have been asked to include a tag so they can tell the browser what to do.

According to Lie, though, this will create a problem for browser makers like Opera as they, too, will need to include separate rendering engines and code to replicate the behavior of IE 8 for web sites.

That will create three problems: it'll make browsers fatter and slower, which will be a real problem for mobile devices that need lean and fast, it'll add complexity, and it'll slow development as only Microsoft has access to the code for its rendering engines.

"IE 8 is one step forward and two steps back" Lie said. "IE 8 doesn't fundamentally change anything here. We need to have the regulatory authorities step here." ®

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