- 14 Jan 08, 18:36 GMT
You thought Microsoft’s long war with competition regulators was over? Wrong! Brussels is marching into battle with Bill Gates’ business again, having won a stunning victory last September over two issues – the way it bundles software like Windows Media Player with the operating system, and interoperability with rival products.
The EU is taking those same two issues as the basis of a new investigation into Office, Outlook, and Internet Explorer, following complaints from Opera (the Norwegian web browser) and the European Committee for Interoperable Systems.
And Microsoft’s opponents aren’t underplaying what’s at stake. “It’s a case which might transform the whole software industry,” was how Thomas Vinje, a lawyer for ECIS , described it to me. ECIS is not just a bunch of bearded Scandinavian open-source dudes – its members include Nokia, Adobe, Sun and Real Networks, and they are confident that the EU can make the charges stick.
What’s the issue? The old one about Microsoft’s dominance crowding out rivals in both new and old areas of software. So you keep using Outlook because everyone else does – and if you try to use open-source software to schedule a meeting with a colleague whose calendar is on Outlook, it just won’t work.
This is also a battle over Microsoft’s desire to promote its Office Open XML file format for documents. Bill Gates and his colleagues see this as an open standard which will promote that very interoperability which the EU has been demanding – but ECIS describes it as “crafty game-playing”, designed to appear collaborative while shutting out rivals from the open-source movement.
Microsoft has released a bland statement promising to cooperate fully with the investigation. When I reached a senior executive who’s had a lengthy involvement with the regulatory battle he sounded weary.
“We’ve been in this for the past nine years,” he said. “We’d rather just focus on making good software.”
The trouble is, Microsoft’s rivals believe that this “good software" is designed to shore up its monopoly at a time when open-source operators are offering products that can be downloaded from the internet, often for nothing.
Time was when big corporations – especially American ones – laughed off the EU regulators as a minor irritant.
With Google, Apple and Microsoft all under the microscope in Brussels, they’re not laughing now.
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