The European Commission is soliciting advice on the method it should mandate in order to force Microsoft to enable rival browsers to be downloaded directly from Windows.

According to an article published in the online edition of the Wall Street Journal, the EC sent out a questionnaire on Friday to PC makers and software vendors that, among other things, is asking for recommendations on the best method of implementing what it sees as a remedy to Microsoft's dominance in the browser market, sources familiar with the matter said.

Hearing No Show

On January 15, the European Commission issued a statement of objections concerning Microsoft's practice of tying its Internet Explorer browser to Windows, in which the commission set forth the evidence it had gathered to date. In the document, European competition authorities also outlined their preliminary determination about Microsoft's method of linking IE to Windows, which they said was harming competition between Web browsers, undermining product innovation and ultimately reducing consumer choice.

Microsoft, which filed its formal response to the EC's statement of objections in April, had an opportunity to respond to the charges at a formal hearing set for early June. However, the software giant decided late last month to cancel its appearance after learning that many principal European government officials would instead be attending the International Competition Network meeting in Zurich.

"We raised concerns about this scheduling conflict with the Commission the very same day we were notified of the proposed hearing date" and "asked the Commission to consider alternative dates," said Dave Heiner, Microsoft's deputy general counsel, last month. "Unfortunately, the Commission has informed us that June 3-5 are the only dates that a suitable room is available in Brussels for a hearing" and "declined to reschedule."

Seeking Consensus

To arrive at a final ruling, the EC will have to rely on the written statement that Microsoft submitted in April, together with the comments of interested parties such as the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), which counts IBM, Nokia, Opera Software and Oracle among its members. The software giant once again faces the possibility of a substantial fine, together with the requirement that it enable rival browsers to be downloaded directly from Windows.

"Whatever happens, Microsoft is absolutely committed to offering Windows 7 in Europe in a manner that is fully compliant with European law," Heiner said.

EC spokesman Jonathan Todd indicated last March that the commission was leaning toward mandating a "ballot screen" that would enable users to select a rival browser directly from Windows. Users would then be able to "choose which competing Web browser instead of -- or in addition to -- Internet Explorer they want to install, and which one they want to have as the default," Todd told the Euroactiv portal, an independent working instrument for NGOs, industry federations and other institutions involved in defining or influencing EU policies.

However, the Commission's new questionnaire indicates that it has paid close attention to concerns raised by interested parties such as Google, which worries that the EC's remedy might end up having other unintended consequences. "For this reason, Google thinks that the more voices there are in the conversation, the greater the chances of success," said Sundar Pichai, Google's vice president of product development, earlier this year.

Whatever remedy the EC decides to adopt, smaller, more innovative browser developers need a level playing field, noted ECIS spokesman Thomas Vinje. "This is an important case to ensure that browsers can compete on [their] merits and that consumers have a true choice in the software they use to access the World Wide Web," Vinje said.