The European Commission this morning took another step toward a possible fine against Microsoft and delivered a public warning to the company over a component of Windows 8, two days before the release of the new operating system.

Antitrust regulators say they have reached a preliminary finding that Microsoft failed to comply with its promises under a 2009 antitrust settlement, after a Windows update left out a “ballot” designed to make it easier for PC users to choose competitors to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser.

Microsoft has acknowledged the mistake and recently trimmed the bonuses of CEO Steve Ballmer and Windows president Steven Sinofsky, saying they were ultimately responsible for what happened.

The company said in a statement this morning, “We take this matter very seriously and moved quickly to address this problem as soon as we 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. We sincerely apologize for this mistake and will continue to cooperate fully with the Commission.”

Regulators delivered the preliminary finding to Microsoft in a “statement of objections,” the latest step in a process that could lead to a significant fine against the company — as much as 10 percent of annual revenue, or $7 billion.

In a statement to the press, Joaquín Almunia, the European competition commissioner, also addressed the upcoming Windows 8 release. He said, “Based on our own monitoring, we have raised issues to Microsoft relating to Windows 8, which is to be released soon. If a user decides to set a rival browser as the default browser, there should not be unnecessary warning windows or confirmations by the user, and the Internet Explorer icon should also be unpinned from the Start screen. We expect Microsoft to address these issues.”

Update: Here’s what Microsoft says on the Windows 8 issue: “After discussions 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.”

The New York Times cites legal experts who say the commission is using the case, in part, to send a message to Google as the search giant tries to resolve its own antitrust issues in Europe.

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  • Tim Acheson

    This really is farcical, especially in today’s climate.

    Apple isn’t required to prompt users with a browser choice on iPhone/iPad or Mac, and Google isn’t required to prompt users with a browser choice on Android or Chromebook. And yet, it was Google and allies including Apple who lobbied the EU to take this ridiculous action!

    The EU is arguably the most bloated and corrupt institution in the history of human civilisation — besides being undemocratic.

  • Guest

    I support the rebels throughout Europe who are successfully destroying the once-proud E.U. What should have been a peacemongering agent of development has quickly become an overly-proud morass of bureaucracy.

    Instead of encouraging development of a European operating system, the E.U. believes it can blackmail successful American vendors to bend to the will of men they’ll never meet. (There are a few European operating systems like Linux, but they have failed to capture the desktop market.)

    Instead of funding a search engine of Europe’s own, the E.U. has tried to assert control over successful American engines such as Google.

    Let’s face it: at this point, Europe is just a tourist trap for America’s and Asia’s wealthy. The E.U. can pretend it has control over companies based elsewhere, but we would prefer that it simply allow successful entities to do business on its continent in the absence of any real home-grown competition.

  • Christopher Budd

    Oh boy….here comes the “boom”. What’s really sad is this was totally self-inflicted and I’d bet the farm the result of organizational disorganization rather than malicious intention.

    The point that this may be less about Microsoft and more about Google is an interesting one. Coupled with this article (ignore the bad title, there’s some interesting insights in the article itself: about the lack of any movement on this front against Windows RT underscores how things have changed.

  • ScanGadget

    Microsoft was here before the European Union was formed, and it will be here when the European Union is gone.

  • Michael Khalilian

    So a European commission is trying to tell a private American company how their products should work? If users don’t like it, they don’t have to buy it. Anti-trust regulations are immoral. In a free market the consumers are the regulators.

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