The European Commission (EC) on Friday announced a preliminary decision in the latest round of seemingly endless antitrust accusations against Microsoft. The software giant must stop bundling Internet Explorer (IE) in Windows, the agency says, because comingling the two products is harming competition in the browser market.

That IE has been consistently losing market share to its number one rival, Mozilla Firefox, seems to have made little impression on the EC, which has consistently proven to be more interested in shoring up Microsoft's competition than worry about market realities. And that's especially true is the competition that complains about Microsoft happens to be from an EU country.

"Microsoft's tying of Internet Explorer to the Windows operating system harms competition between web browsers, undermines product innovation and ultimately reduces consumer choice," the EC said in a prepared statement. The statement arrives just a week after market researchers announced that IE fell from 74 percent of the market in 2007 to 68 percent by the end of 2008. The main beneficiary of that gap was Firefox, which jumped to over 21 percent of the market during the same time frame.

Microsoft's latest woes come courtesy of Opera, a Norwegian company that complained to the EU about the software giant's bundling practices and alleged undermining of Web standards. However, Opera is unique among non-Microsoft browser makers in that it did not make market share gains in 2008. Firefox, Apple Safari, and Google Chrome all gained on IE during this time period. Perhaps the problem is Opera, not Microsoft's business practices. After all, consumers do have choice; they're just not choosing Opera. And Google's browser was actually launched in late 2008: Apparently that company wasn't aware of the shackles Opera claims that Microsoft has around the industry.

Microsoft has 8 weeks to reply to the EC decision and the company said it was studying the findings. It may request a formal hearing, which could drag out any proposed remedy for an interminable period of time. "Microsoft is committed to conducting our business in full compliance with European law," the company wrote in a statement.