Responding to critics who claimed that the new browser ballot screen that it delivered to Windows 7, Vista, and XP users in the EU was flawed, Microsoft last week quietly changed the code to be truly random. Previously, the software giant had provided the ballot with an algorithm that unfairly promoted certain browsers to the top of the list.
"We made a change to the random icon order algorithm in the browser choice screen for Europe," said Microsoft Director of Public Affairs Kevin Kutz. "We are confident the algorithm change will be an improvement. As always, we are grateful for the feedback we get from developers, and we thank those who commented on the topic and suggested changes."
The browser ballot screen is part of a settlement Microsoft made with EU regulators in response to a complaint from browser-maker Opera. It provides Windows users with a screen through which they can learn about and pick an alternative web browser, but only if Microsoft's own Internet Explorer is the default choice. The screen is designed to display the top five browsers in a random order that isn't weighted in any one browser's favor.
But in its original implementation, there was a coding error that caused Google Chrome to be the first choice in the list an inordinate number of times. And coincidentally, Microsoft's IE browser was usually last in the list. Now, with the change implemented this week, the ordering of the top five browsers is truly random.
IBM engineer Rob Weir, who previously documented how the original algorithm was flawed, says that the changes Microsoft made fix the issue. "Aside from being much faster, the new random shuffle algorithm gives much better results," he said. "This looks fine to me."
The appearance of the browser ballot screen has provided some fringe browsers with a small boost in usage. This is due, no doubt, to users discovering their existence for the first time through this user interface. How we ever navigated the web without such browser stalwarts as Sleipnir or Maxthon is unclear.