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A week after a Microsoft exec asserted on TV that manufacturers had the freedom to offer their customers a choice of browsers for their computers, Gateway announced that it had obtained permission from the company to do just that. Henceforth Netscape's browser will be offered as an alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

That such a dispensation is even newsworthy illustrates the kind of control that Microsoft has been accused of exerting in the past -- and apparently continues to, for all its denials -- and its belated concession follows the company's pattern of giving up as little as possible as late as possible. But this apparent loosening gives only a narrow margin of leeway and actually invites scrutiny of other Redmond customs --and Gateway's too -- as other contractual restrictions close in to fill the vacuum: Gateway is making this option available only to subscribers to its Internet service, because so many other ISPs require their subscribers to use Microsoft's browser exclusively.

Even so, it's got to be good news for Netscape, whose share of the browser market continued to fall as of last January, from 63 percent of the market to 54 percent. Internet Explorer nearly doubled its presence in the same period, from 21 percent to 39.