EU inching towards Microsoft antitrust charge, record fines loom

Summary:Microsoft is reportedly only days away from receiving a formal antitrust complaint after the software giant left out its required 'browser choice' screen to 28 million users. Record fines loom not far away.

Microsoft is about to feel the full force of the European antitrust gust, as the software giant braces itself for one stormy winter.

The European Union is preparing to issue Microsoft with a formal antitrust complaint, after the software giant failed to include a crucial 'browser choice' update in the latest version of its operating system.

European authorities are reportedly almost ready to issue Microsoft with a formal "statement of objections," according to German publication Der Spiegel, in which the software giant will be formally charged with a list of accusations. The software giant may be given the opportunity to settle, to admit fault and face a greatly reduced fine, or appeal the decision, which could drag out the whole saga for another two to three years.

The EU began an investigation into Microsoft earlier this year after it was claimed more than 28 million European users of Windows failed to receive a 'browser choice' option as part of an earlier 2009 settlement with Europe.

The browser choice was a mandatory Windows hotfix issued as part of  the company's efforts to comply with the ruling . It allowed competing browsers -- such as Firefox, Opera, and Chrome -- to be offered alongside Microsoft's own Internet Explorer as part of a settlement with EU regulators.

Microsoft admitted,  almost immediately after the Commission's allegations were made public , 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."

Microsoft has already admitted its wrongdoing in the case in the hope that it may dampen the harsh stick of justice from the European authorities.  In "personal talks" with Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer, EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said he was given "assurances that [Microsoft] will comply immediately regardless of the conclusion of the anti trust probe." 

Historically, Microsoft and antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have not played along nicely in the competitive sandbox on the technology world stage. However, Microsoft's willingness to accept its forthcoming fate does not necessarily mean the software giant will get off lightly. However, Almunia has hinted strongly at heavy sanctions even in spite of Microsoft's repeated apologies and offers for remedies. 

Earlier this month, Microsoft's proxy statement for its fiscal 2012 earnings showed that the firm's "top named executive officers," including Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Windows president Steven Sinofsky, who saw their incentive awards 'dinged' as a result of the failure to provide the browser choice as per the firm's 2009 commitment with European authorities.

Microsoft faces a fine up to 10 percent of its global annual turnover should it be found flouting European antitrust laws; a figure that could total close to €5.7 billion ($7.3bn).

Topics: Microsoft, Browser, EU, Mobile OS, Operating Systems

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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