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Windows 8 gets 'browser ballot' amid EU antitrust probe

European user of Windows 8 can now select their choice of browser, amid an European antitrust investigation into Microsoft's failure to include the software in Windows 7.

Microsoft's 'browser ballot' screen provided to European consumers of Windows 8. Hint: Look for the smallish gray-brown box on the right half of the screen shot. Zack Whittaker/CNET

Microsoft is pushing out an update to Windows 8 users to enable the "browser ballot" screen, even though the forthcoming operating system's release date is set for over a month away.

Windows 8 users in Europe are now given the choice of which browser -- including Microsoft's own Internet Explorer -- they wish to install.

The Windows Update-offered patch provides a Windows 8 "tiled" (formerly known as "Metro") application, which offers a range of third-party browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Maxthon 3, and Opera, along with Internet Explorer to be installed.

While Internet Explorer is already installed with Windows, the update "unpins" the browser from the desktop, and adds the browser ballot tile to the Start screen. Internet Explorer remains on the new tiled Start screen, however.

Controversy stirred earlier this year after Microsoft failed to include the mandatory software in the latest patched version of Windows 7, which may have resulted in 27 million European consumers not being given the option to change their browser.

In 2009, Microsoft was found by European antitrust authorities to have abused its dominant operating system market position by bundling Internet Explorer with the desktop software. Microsoft settled the case with Europe, and dished out a "browser ballot" screen to European users of Windows, first seen in February 2010.

But in July, the European Commission said it had received complaints that Microsoft was not carrying out its obligations to provide users' with a choice of browser. The EU swiftly opened an antitrust investigation into the software giant.

Users are given a choice of five different browsers, including Microsoft's own Internet Explorer. Zack Whittaker/CNET

Microsoft admitted in an almost-immediate public statement that it had failed to offer the browser ballot screen since February 2011 because a "technical error" led to the browser ballot update not being included in the store-shelf version of Windows 7 with Service Pack 1.

"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.

EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia told reporters over the weekend that he had received "assurances" from Microsoft that the company will "comply immediately regardless of the conclusion of the antitrust probe," in what the antitrust chief described as "personal talks" with Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.

Windows 8 specifically is also under the antitrust spotlight after allegedly limiting of programming interfaces (APIs, which allow the operating system and other programs to talk to each other) to developers, rival browser makers accuse, while Internet Explorer runs in both "tiled" and "classic" 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.

CNET has put in questions to Microsoft, but did not hear back at the time of writing. If we hear back, we'll update the piece.