Microsoft will in the coming weeks begin shipping the first copies of a new version of Windows without Media Player software, a product it was forced to make available under the terms of last year's antitrust ruling by the European Commission.

The landmark ruling, which found Microsoft guilty of breaking European Union competition law, was handed down in March 2004.

The two sides subsequently spent months haggling over how Microsoft should implement the Commission decision, which also forced the group to pay a record €497m ($610m) fine.

Brussels was particularly concerned that the new version of Windows christened the N version, for “not including Media Player” had been designed in a way that would deter consumers.

It told Microsoft to remove warnings in manuals and packaging claiming that certain applications would not work on the stripped-down version of Windows.

The US software giant was also told to modify the N version to ensure that the removal of Media Player did not compromise the functioning of the new system.

A version that complies with the Commission's interpretation of its ruling will now be made available to computer makers on June 15.

The system will initially be offered in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, and will be followed by versions in other European languages one month later.

Although some consumers buy the Windows operating system in retail outlets, Microsoft sells most copies of its flagship product directly to computer makers, who then pre-install Windows along with other software.

This means that the success of the Commission's sanction will depend in large part on the readiness of manufacturers to pre-install the N version, even though the full Windows package comes at the same price.

Some of the biggest manufacturers such as Dell have said in the past that they had no plans to ship the unbundled Windows version in their boxes, while Hewlett-Packard has signalled it would offer both version to potential buyers.

The Commission said yesterday: “We welcome the fact that that they have now put on the market a version of Windows without Media Player as requested by the March 2004 decision. Compliance is an on-going process and should any problems with this version of Windows become apparent, for example if it proved not to be fully functional, we will look into it.”

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