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Is Microsoft playing ‘Monopoly’ with Google over IE7’s search bar?

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Is Microsoft playing 'Monopoly' with Google over IE7's search bar?

Redmond (WA) – A story in this morning’s New York Times, quoting representatives from Google as having objections to the way the current beta of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7 handles the default choice of search engines. The Times report suggests that IE7 “typically” leads users to MSN Search as a default choice, following installation.

A look at IE7’s Search Bar, which shows Google was the default choice for this installation.

Our own tests of the most recent beta of IE7 show that the default choice of search engine in the browser’s Search Bar is gleaned from entries in the user’s Windows System Registry. Thus, if the user upgraded from IE6, and Google was the featured entry in her IE6 Search Bar, then that will become the “Default” setting after the user upgrades to IE7. Otherwise, in the absence of a prior choice ever having been made, IE7 defaults to MSN Search. No other search engines are automatically available by default, on a clean install, until the user inserts them manually.

According to a post on the official MSDN blog for IE7 developers by Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft’s general manager for IE, OEMs are given the option to override these defaults, when assembling systems for their customers. In other words, Dell or another vendor can make Google or Yahoo or any other search engine its customer’s default setting if they so choose. In addition, enterprise administrators will be able to determine users’ Search Box settings and defaults through policies.

“We thought the best way for IE7 to do what the user wants is to honor the user’s autosearch setting from IE6,” Hachamovitch wrote. “This setting is well-documented and has been in use for many years. It is a good indicator of user intent.” He cited data from comScore stating that, as a result of relying on the prior IE6 setting, almost three-fourths of new IE7 users could experience default Search Bar settings other than MSN Search.

According to a comScore study released two weeks ago, an estimated 48.9% of all toolbar-based searches, for all browsers, are performed through Google. 46.5% are Yahoo-based searches, with the remainder picking up the scraps. Google’s share of all searches, according to comScore, grew to 42.7% last March, up from 36.4% in March 2005.

On the one hand, making MSN Search the default search engine on a clean, user-initiated install might make it seem like Microsoft is leveraging its browser power to promote its own search engine, and other services. On the other, argues Hachamovitch, the alternatives don’t seem workable. One vendor, he wrote, suggested that a Web page be able to alter the list of search services available to the user, automatically. That would be an invasion of privacy, he said, from Microsoft’s point of view.

Instead, IE7 is enabling sites to implement something called the “OpenSearch link,” which launches a two-step process to add new search functionality – even category-specific search, such as scientific or genealogical or culinary – to the Search Bar, so that MSN Search is not always the most prominent option.

The problem with an “OpenSearch link,” some believe, is that it could carry with it a Microsoft brand, and at the very least, promote IE7. But one blogger noticed today that Google’s home page now recognizes when the user’s browser is IE7, and adds its own OpenSearch link especially for it. No Microsoft brand is attached to this special link.

Hachamovitch writes that Microsoft considered populating the Search Bar list, by default, with multiple choices. The problem this created, however, concerned the weight of those choices. “The challenge of populating that list while respecting the user’s control of her machine,” he wrote, “grew so complicated so quickly that we abandoned the idea.” Even after Microsoft would come up with a purely objective methodology for determining which services qualify, would observers consider Microsoft’s choices subject to favoritism? Hachamovitch paints a picture of a company that settled for the lesser of several evils.