The Europe/Microsoft Browser Battle Ends

The European Commission is dropping its long-standing antitrust case against Microsoft (s msft) involving browsers after the company agreed to offer users alternative choices to Internet Explorer, even as its browser market share continues to dip. The announcement was delivered in Brussels by Europe’s competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, who has been very closely involved with the case. As part of its deal with the European Commission, Microsoft will offer a pop-up pane including as many as 11 browsers, including open source offerings Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome (s goog).

As the Associated Press notes, Kroes compared Microsoft’s longtime practice of placing “the big e” representing Internet Explorer right on the desktop of Windows-based computers, without any other browsers available to users, to bad shelving practices in a store:

“It is as if you went to the supermarket and they only offered you one brand of shampoo on the shelf, and all the other choices are hidden out the back, and not everyone knows about them. What we are saying today is that all the brands should be on the shelf.”

In a statement, Brad Smith, senior VP and general counsel at Microsoft noted who will be affected by the decision:

“The Web browser measures cover the inclusion of Internet Explorer in Windows for users in Europe—specifically the region known as the European Economic Area, which includes 30 nations.”

Microsoft has not expressed any intent to extend its new practices to users in other countries, but it will send a browser choice screen to existing Windows users who are running Internet Explorer as their default browser.

The case arose out of an initial complaint filed by small, Norwegian browser maker Opera Software. Mozilla, which makes the popular Firefox browser, and Google, which is gaining market share with its Chrome browser, had expressed support for changes in Microsoft’s browser practices. Firefox and Chrome are the two browsers most likely to benefit from Europe’s decision today. Firefox is already the most popular browser in some European countries, such as Germany.

Could Microsoft eventually open source Internet Explorer? The idea might help the company compete with Mozilla and Google more effectively, and has been suggested by many people. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said he’s looking at the idea, mentioning the open source WebKit browser engine in particular. Whether Microsoft does go with such a strategy or not, today’s announcement is certain to cause Internet Explorer’s market share to dip further.

Image courtesy of the European Commission.