In a bold and unexpected move, Microsoft yesterday announced that it had given European Union (EU) antitrust regulators a choice for how Windows 7 would be delivered in that locale: They can choose the currently planned Windows 7 E editions, which eschew Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) browser, or they can choose a version of Windows 7 that includes a browser ballot screen that lets users select among competing browsers.

As farfetched as it sounds, that latter option is exactly what the EU and various browser makers said they wanted, and it represents a major concession for the software maker. But there's a lot at stake: If regulators accept the proposal, the EU will drop its lengthy and damaging antitrust case against Microsoft.

"Microsoft has proposed a consumer ballot screen as a solution to the pending antitrust case about the tying of Microsoft Internet Explorer web browser with Windows," a European Commission (EC) statement reads. "Under the proposal, Windows 7 would include Internet Explorer, but the proposal recognizes the principle that consumers should be given a free and effective choice of web browser, and sets out a means—the ballot screen—by which Microsoft believes that can be achieved. In addition, OEMs would be able to install competing web browsers, set those as default, and disable Internet Explorer should they so wish. The Commission welcomes this proposal and will now investigate its practical effectiveness in terms of ensuring genuine consumer choice."

The EU considered Microsoft's previous proposal—to remove IE from Windows with the so-called E editions—to be ineffective as a remedy to the original complaint: that the bundling of the two products removed consumer choice. And even the new proposal doesn't answer other antitrust problems in the EU surrounding Windows and Windows Server interoperability and Office document formats. But it's very clear from the language of the EC statement that the commission is taking a far more positive stance on this Microsoft move than it ever has in the past.

It will be interesting to see how or whether this change affects web browser usage in Europe. Competing browsers such as Mozilla Firefox are already more broadly used there than they are in many other locales, including the United States, so the impact might ultimately prove minimal. But this is a remedy Microsoft fought tooth and nail a decade ago before the Windows/IE bundling charges were finally thrown on in the company's US-based antitrust case. My, how times have changed: This time around, it was Microsoft that proposed this alteration.