updated 3/29/2006 11:00:27 AM ET 2006-03-29T16:00:27

The European Union said for the first time Wednesday it is concerned that Microsoft Corp.’s new Vista operating system could break antitrust rules, even though the software is still months away from hitting the market.

(MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes wrote to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to outline concerns that Vista’s new functions could mean customers will not be offered a real choice on software packages, EU spokesman Jonathan Todd said Wednesday.

“We’re concerned about the possibility that the next Vista operating system will include various elements which are currently available separately either from Microsoft or other companies,” he told reporters.

He highlighted Vista’s integrated Internet search, digital rights management used to protect copyrights and software that would create fixed-document formats comparable to Adobe’s pdf.

He said Kroes’ letter to Ballmer came after Microsoft asked regulators to set out any possible antitrust problems with Vista, stressing that it was not the start of any formal probe into the new operating system.

“We assume that Microsoft has its own interests at heart. It wants to launch another product without having to worry about the (European) Commission instituting various actions under antitrust law,” he said. “The commission’s concern is that computer manufacturers or consumers might be prevented from having a proper choice between different software packages.”

Windows Vista is Microsoft’s first major update to the company’s flagship operating system since Windows XP was released in late 2001.

Microsoft said it could not comment on the contents of the letter because it had not received it. It said consumers were free to use a wide range of competitor products and Vista was designed to respect the choices that consumers make.

“Keeping the industry and regulators informed of our product development plans has been, and will remain, a priority,” it said in a statement. “We have worked hard to include partners and competitors in our planning so they can build products and services that work with Windows Vista.”

Vista’s ability to work with rival products also comes under EU scrutiny. “There is also the possibility that we won’t have all the necessary technical information so that competitors will be able to make a product that is compatible with Vista,” Todd said.

Microsoft announced last week that the consumer version of Vista will be delayed again, until early next year, further extending the long gap between major Windows releases. A version for large business customers is due out in November.

Any investigation into Vista would be separate from Microsoft’s ongoing legal challenge to a 2004 antitrust ruling and fine. That EU ruling found the company guilty of abusing antitrust rules by squeezing rival media players out of the market and holding back technical information that would help software developers make products that worked with Windows.

Last month, a group of Microsoft rivals filed a complaint with EU regulators, alleging its business practices threatened to deny real choice among competing software products.

The European Committee for Interoperable Systems — which includes IBM Corp., Nokia Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., RealNetworks Inc. and Oracle Corp. — said it was asking EU regulators to end practices that reinforced Microsoft’s existing monopolies and extended its market dominance into current and future product markets.

It would not say if Vista was mentioned in the complaint but did say it had listed concerns about Microsoft’s Office software suite, which packages word processing, spreadsheet and office management tools.

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