As expected, the European Union this week dropped its years-old antitrust investigation into Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser after agreeing to a deal with the software giant. Under terms of the deal, Microsoft will allow EU-based users of its Windows operating system to choose between up to 12 different web browsers via a pop-up ballot screen, which is now being referred to as the "browser choice" screen. And PC makers are free to ship machines with IE removed from the system.

"We are pleased with today's decision by the European Commission, which approves a final resolution of several longstanding competition law issues in Europe," a statement from Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith reads. "We look forward to building on the dialogue and trust that has been established between Microsoft and the Commission and to extending our industry leadership on interoperability."

According to EU regulators, this deal prevents another massive fine for Microsoft, which has accrued almost $2.5 billion in antitrust-related fines over the past decade. Previous to the IE brouhaha, the software giant came under fire for bundling media player software in Windows.

The deal affects customers in the 30 nations of the so-called European Economic Area only, and does not apply to those in the United States or other countries. It will result to changes in Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7, including those that are already installed on users' computers; Microsoft says it will deliver the changes via Windows Update.

The browser choice screen will present the five most popular browsers—Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera—prominently. Seven other browsers—a roster of weird products few have ever heard of—will be featured less prominently. The choices will be updated every six months to reflect actual usages statistics.

The IE investigation was touched off by industry also-ran Opera, which hailed this decision as "a victory for the future of the web." My suspicion is that that future will not include Opera, which currently commands barely one percent of the browser market, though the company's actions will have long effect thanks to a willing ear in Brussels.

If you enjoy historical irony, consider this: Microsoft first offered up the ballot screen option to United States antitrust regulators back in 1998. At the time, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) was weighing whether it should launch a historic antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, and the ballot screen offer was considered unsatisfactory. The DOJ proceeded with the suit, and eventually prevailed in court on a number of counts. But the web browser bundling part of the case was eventually thrown out, an action that Microsoft tried unsuccessfully to highlight in its EU case