Brussels: EU antitrust regulators charged Microsoft on Wednesday with breaking a promise to offer rival browsers to consumers, a step to a possible hefty fine in a long-running dispute that has already cost the software giant more than a billion euros.

The world’s No. 1 software company promised three years ago to offer browser choices, in a bid to settle an EU antitrust investigation and avoid a penalty that could have been as much as 10% of its global turnover.

But the EU Commission, which acts as antitrust watchdog in the European Union, said Microsoft had not fulfilled its pledge between February last year and July this year, confirming a Reuters report earlier on Wednesday.

EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said Microsoft must face the music.

“If companies enter into commitments, they must do what they are committed to do or face the consequences. Companies should be deterred from any temptation to renege on promises or even to neglect their duty," he told a news briefing.

Almunia said he had also warned Microsoft about access to rival browsers on Windows 8, the latest version of the company’s flagship product which will be released on Friday.

“We have been in contact with them regarding Windows 8. I have precisely transmitted ... what are my concerns, what kind of presentation should be avoided if they don’t want to take the risk of a new investigation," he said.

Microsoft could face a significant fine as it is the second time it has failed to comply with an EU order.

A sanction could top $7.4 billion or 10% of its revenues for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012 — but the final figure is expected to be lower, as the infringement covered a relatively short period of time.

Microsoft, which has been penalized €1.36 billion ($1.76 billion) in the last decade for infringing EU rules, apologized. It has four weeks to reply to the Commission’s “statement of objections" or charge sheet.

“Although this was the result of a technical error, we take responsibility for what happened, and we are strengthening our internal procedures to help ensure something like this cannot happen again," the company said in a statement.

No tablet probe

Almunia told the briefing he had no reason to go after Microsoft’s operating system for tablets, a market that includes rivals Apple and Google.

“We have looked at Windows RT and on the basis of our investigation so far, there are no grounds to pursue further investigation on this particular issue," he said.

The Commission said in July several companies had accused Microsoft of only allowing its own Internet Explorer browser to be installed on devices running Windows 8 on Windows RT tablets.

With the Microsoft case heading for resolution, the next battle for the Commission is likely to be with Google, the target of complaints by Microsoft and more than a dozen other rivals over its core search engine business.

The world’s most popular search engine is now in talks with the EU watchdog that could help it avoid sanctions which could amount to some $4 billion. Reuters