After the European Commission -- the European Union's executive arm -- today formally objected to Microsoft regarding the company's failure to fulfill its commitment to offer Windows users a free choice of browser in settlement of an earlier antitrust case, Microsoft said it will change Windows 8 to comply with those rules before it launches this week.
Microsoft had promised to show a browser choice screen to Windows users, but the commission has been investigating complaints that the screen was not shown to some Windows 7 users.
"In its statement of objections, the commission takes the preliminary view that Microsoft has failed to roll out the browser choice screen with its Windows 7 Service Pack 1, which was released in February 2011," the commission said, adding that millions of European Windows users may not have seen the browser choice screen between February 2011 and July 2012.
"Microsoft has acknowledged that the choice screen was not displayed during that period," the commission said.
Microsoft has been legally bound to show the browser choice screen to Windows users in Europe since December 2009, allowing them to choose which Web browser they wanted to install instead of, or in addition to, Microsoft's Internet Explorer. As of March 2010 Internet Explorer users who set that browser as a default in Europe were presented with a screen to choose another browser.
The commission said the statement of objections is a formal step in the investigation. Microsoft is informed of the objections and can reply in writing and request an oral hearing, it said. Microsoft has four weeks to respond formally.
"The commission takes a final decision only after the parties have exercised their rights of defence," it said, adding that Microsoft maybe fined up to 10 percent of its worldwide turnover. "It is too early to speculate as to what fine might be appropriate," said Antoine Colombani, spokesman for competition of the European Commission, who added that the 10 percent mentioned is "a legal maximum, not an indication of what a possible fine would be."
Microsoft said in an emailed statement that it takes the matter "very seriously" and added that it has moved quickly to address the problem as soon as it became aware of it. "Although this was the result of a technical error, we take responsibility for what happened, and we have taken steps to strengthen our internal procedures to help ensure something like this cannot happen again," the company stated. "We sincerely apologize for this mistake and will continue to cooperate fully with the commission."
The official complaint was welcomed by browser maker Opera, which said via email that it is pleased "the commission is willing to take measures to make sure Microsoft lives up to its commitments from 2009."
Microsoft is still required to comply with the commitments, stressed Joaquín Almunia, vice president of the European Commission in charge of competition, in a speech detailing the complaint. "Based on our own monitoring we have raised issues to Microsoft relating to Windows 8," Almunia said. He added that if a user decides to set a rival browser as default, there should be no unnecessary warning windows or confirmations displayed. The Internet Explorer icon should also be unpinned from the start screen, he said.
"We expect Microsoft to address these issues," Almunia said. The commission has also looked into Windows RT, the version for tablet computers, and there are "no grounds to pursue further investigations" into this matter, he added.
After discussions with the commission, Microsoft decided to change some aspects of the way the Browser Choice screen works on Windows 8 and will have those changes implemented when Windows 8 launches later this week, Microsoft said.
There are at this point, no grounds for further intervention into other issues raised by third parties, Almunia said. "However, needless to say, we will remain vigilant and we will continue to monitor all aspects of Microsoft's compliance with its commitments in the future," he added.