The European Union on Wednesday upped the
pressure on Microsoft amid suspicions that it has breached the terms
of an antitrust deal, sending a statement of objections that could
eventually lead to hefty fines.
The EU's executive, the European Commission, opened an investigation into the computer giant in July for failing to offer Windows users a choice of web browsers, as agreed with the EU in return for the dropping of an antitrust case.
On Wednesday, it officially informed the company of its "preliminary view that Microsoft has failed to comply with its commitments."
"We have a basic principle in our competition rules that if companies enter into commitments, they must do what they have committed to do or face the consequences," the Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia told reporters.
"Companies should be deterred from any temptation to renege on their promises or even to neglect their duties," he added.
Microsoft now has four weeks to respond to the accusations. If found guilty of the breach, it could face a fine of up to 10 per cent of its annual global turnover.
"We take this matter very seriously and moved quickly to address this problem as soon as we became aware of it," Microsoft said in a statement on Wednesday. "Although this was the result of a technical error, we take responsibility for what happened."
"We sincerely apologize for this mistake and will continue to cooperate fully with the commission," it added.
In 2009, the company had promised to offer Windows users a choice of web browsers until 2014, giving them an alternative to its own Internet Explorer programme.
But between February 2011 and July 2012, the so-called choice screen disappeared, following the introduction of the Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1) software update.
The US company has said that "roughly 28 million PCs running Windows 7 SP1" had been affected by the time it discovered the problem on July 2.
Microsoft has offered to run the choice screens for 15 months longer than the commission had originally requested to cover for their temporary absence.
But Almunia pointed out that there are already fresh concerns with the new Windows 8 operating system due to be released soon.
The EU has warned the company about any "unnecessary warning windows or confirmations by the user" that come up if a non-Microsoft web browser is picked in the choice screen, Almunia said. The EU also wants the Internet Explorer logo to be removed from the start screen.
Microsoft said later in the day that after talks with the commission, "we are changing 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."
It is not the first time that the EU and Microsoft have clashed.
In 2008, the commission imposed an 899-million-euro fine - the highest in EU history at the time - on Microsoft, for a delay in paying previous penalties for abusing its dominance of the world personal computer market.
Microsoft challenged the decision before the EU's top court, but the European Court of Justice in June upheld the bulk of the fine, reducing it by only 39 million euros.
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