The European Union’s (EU's) top antitrust official said over the weekend that he has confirmed with Microsoft that the software giant will change Windows 8 to comply with any EU antitrust requirements. The comments, allegedly made by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, refer to a new investigation of Windows 8’s labyrinthine new web browser rules for competitors. But Microsoft has already changed Windows 8 to comply with a previous EU web browser requirement.
"In my personal talks with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, he has given me assurances that they will comply immediately regardless of the conclusion of the antitrust probe," European Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said in response to a question at an unrelated economic conference on Saturday. The comments were reported by Reuters.
Microsoft was previously found to have violated EU antitrust laws and, as part of its punishment, was forced to offer a so-called “browser ballot” screen in Windows that would give consumers a choice between Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE), which comes as part of Windows, and competing web browsers. However, in July, the software giant admitted that it hadn’t implemented the browser ballot in its current Windows version, Windows 7, since February 2011 because of a “technical error.” At the time, Microsoft said that it had returned the ballot to Windows and offered to extend its antitrust compliance period in the EU another 15 months.
Days later, the EU announced a separate antitrust probe of Windows 8, which offers a starkly different and confusing choice of web browsers, after competitors such as Google and Mozilla complained. According to these firms, Microsoft doesn't allow them to create full-featured web browsers that run in the new “Metro” mode of Windows 8 and Windows RT, the ARM-based version of Windows 8, giving Microsoft an unfair competitive edge. Furthermore, Microsoft is blocking them from making desktop versions of their browsers for Windows RT.
The EU considers these web browser issues to be “very, very serious,” according to Almunia. He noted that limiting Microsoft’s ability to co-mingle IE with Windows has resulted in “a range of innovative products that would otherwise not have seen the light of day.” While that’s a bit of a stretch, it’s fair to say that the EU has helped reverse IE’s dominance of the web browser market in Europe. IE’s share of that market has fallen from 49 percent market share two years ago to just 16.3 percent today, according to New Europe. Both Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox have much higher market share in Europe than does IE.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is already complying with its previous web browser-based antitrust requirements in the EU. The firm delivered a software update to Windows 8 last week that adds the browser ballot functionality, called the Browser Choice Screen, to the new OS. Windows 8 arrives generally on October 26, so this update arrives well ahead of the product launch and will be part of the new install process that customers there receive.