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Microsoft 'to comply' with EU in browser choice antitrust probe

The software giant has given the EU assurances that it will comply immediately with regulators' demands, despite failing to honor an earlier agreement.

EU settlement led to the "browser ballot" screen issued to European customers.

Microsoft has said it will comply with European antitrust authorities, after the software giant was accused of not adhering to the promises it said it would keep as part of an earlier settlement.

As quoted by Reuters, EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia told reporters at an economics conference:

In my personal talks with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer he has given me assurances that they will comply immediately regardless of the conclusion of the antitrust probe.

Almunia also described the antitrust investigation as a "very, very serious issue."

Microsoft settled with EU authorities in 2009 after it was accused of unfairly using its operating system monopoly to increase its browser share by bundling Internet Explorer with Windows.

The "browser ballot" was a mandatory Windows update that allowed users to select their choice of Web browser -- such as Firefox, Opera, or Chrome -- to be offered alongside Microsoft's own Internet Explorer as part of the settlement deal.

But in July, the European Commission said it had received complaints that Microsoft had misled EU authorities over its promise to issue the browser ballot screen, which was first rolled out to Windows users in February 2010.

EU authorities accused Microsoft of failing to offer the browser ballot screen to users since February 2011, when Microsoft dished out Windows 7 with Service Pack 1. More than 28 million European customers who bought the latest copy of Windows with the software patch preloaded may not have been given the option to switch browsers.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company promised to give users the choice of browsers until 2014, including in future operating systems, such as the forthcoming Windows 8.

Almunia said at the time, "Microsoft should expect sanctions" if the allegations proved true. The European Commission said it would treat the case "as a matter of priority."

Microsoft admitted, almost immediately after the Commission's allegations, that it had "fallen short in [its] responsibility" to include the browser options screen in the latest iteration of Windows 7 "due to a technical error."

"While we believed when we filed our most recent compliance report in December 2011 that we were distributing the [browser ballot] software to all relevant PCs as required, we learned recently that we've missed serving the [browser ballot] software to the roughly 28 million PCs running Windows 7 SP1," the company said in a public statement.

The software giant also faces scrutiny over Windows 8 -- set for release on October 26 -- over the alleged limiting of access to programming interfaces (APIs, which allow the operating system and other programs to talk to each other) to developers of third-party browsers.

While Internet Explorer 10 runs in both the Windows 8 "tiled" mode and the "classic" desktop mode, rival software makers claim that their browsers can run only in the behind-the-scenes desktop mode.

Microsoft can be fined up to 10 percent of its global annual turnover -- up to 5.7 billion euros ($7 billion) -- or face changes to how it conducts business in the 27 European member states if the software giant is found to have broken European antitrust laws.