Will EU regulators dump cold water on the Windows 8 launch party?

Microsoft announced today that Windows 8 will be ready for the public on October 26. But antitrust regulators in the European Commission are threatening to spoil the celebration with a new investigation triggered by rival browser makers.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft announced the official General Availability date for Windows 8 today. The new OS, three years in development, will be available for sale, in retail packages and on new PCs, on October 26, 2012.

That would normally be cause for celebration in Redmond, but antitrust regulators in Europe are poised to toss a bucket of cold water on the launch party.

A Reuters report today confirmed that the European Commission is investigating Microsoft's decision to block rival browsers from installing on Windows RT, the variant of Windows 8 that runs on ARM processors. The investigation will also look into whether Microsoft is blocking access to application programming interfaces in Windows 8. It's not clear whether those latter allegations affect only Windows RT, or whether the investigation covers the x86/x64 versions of Windows as well.

The new allegations mean an additional IE-related headache for Microsoft, which is in trouble for a possible violation of its agreement to provide EU Windows customers with access to a "browser ballot." That code was dropped from Windows 7 Service Pack 1, meaning some 28 million Windows customers didn't get the required browser ballot at startup.

In a public statement, Microsoft admitted it had "fallen short in [its] responsibility" to update Windows 7 Service Pack 1 "due to a technical error."

According to the report, the investigation was opened following complaints from several companies, which an EU spokesman declined to name. It's a safe bet, though, that Google and Mozilla are on the short list. Both companies, which compete in the browser space with Microsoft, have accused Microsoft of abrogating its agreement to provide open access to Windows for other browser makers.

In a May blog post, Mozilla's Asa Dotzler accused Microsoft of "trying to lock out competing browsers when it comes to Windows running on ARM chips. IE is allowed there but not Firefox or Chrome or Opera or any other competitive browser.”

The complaint about access to APIs, in fact, sounds like it was taken directly from a follow-up post by Dotzler:

It's not precisely "running a browser in Classic" that matters for Windows on ARM. It's that running a browser in Classic is the only way that Microsoft has allowed us to get access to the APIs that a browser needs to deliver modern capabilities and performance in Classic AND Metro.

That complaint is likely to fall on deaf ears in the United States, but the EU has been much more aggressive in recent years about making Microsoft pay, literally, for what it perceives as anticompetitive actions.

As I pointed out when this issue first came up a few months ago, Microsoft will likely argue that it doesn't have a monopoly in ARM-based computing, with literally 0% of the market today and formidable competitors in Apple's iPad and new Android tablets like the Google Nexus 7. The company will also argue that security and reliability are the primary motivators for its decision to lock down web browsing on Windows RT.

Unfortunately for Redmond and its large legal staff, the EU hasn't exactly been receptive to similar arguments in the past, and the result was a series of fines totaling more than $2 billion.

This promises to be a very interesting game of high-stakes poker.

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