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EC Eases Scrutiny in 2004 Microsoft Antitrust Case

The European Commission (EC) on Wednesday announced that it is changing its full-time monitoring of Microsoft's compliance with a 2004 antitrust decision, and instead will use technical consultants for monitoring on an "ad hoc" basis.

The 2004 antitrust case involved two anticompetitive acts involving the Microsoft Windows operating system. The EC fined Microsoft 497 million Euros at the time, or $624 million in today's dollars. Later, it slapped an 899 million Euros penalty ($1.3 billion) on Microsoft for noncompliance.

In the first complaint, brought by Sun Microsystems, Microsoft was found to have engaged in uncompetitive behavior concerning the interoperability of Windows-based PCs with non-Microsoft workgroup servers. The second complaint concerned Microsoft's practice of including Windows Media Player with its Windows operating system. The EC determined that such bundling was anticompetitive behavior under European Union laws.

At the time of the judgment against Microsoft, the EC set up a trustee -- computer science Professor Neil Barrett, who hired two technical advisors -- in 2005 to monitor Microsoft's compliance. Microsoft had to pay for the trustee's services. Now, the EC will just hire a consultant when needed.

"In light of changes in Microsoft's behaviour, the increased opportunity for third parties to exercise their rights directly before national courts and experience gained since the adoption of the 2004 Decision, the Commission no longer requires a full time monitoring trustee to assess Microsoft's compliance," the EC stated in a press release.

Although it may have been unrelated to Sun's complaints before the EC about interoperability, Microsoft, in February of 2008, announced a broad initiative to open up the documentation of its application programming interfaces for a number of its software products, not just Windows.

The EC has been unsparing of Microsoft on the antitrust front, and recently revisited legal ground concerning Microsoft's Web browser distribution practices that was addressed in a November 2002 U.S. federal court decision. Based on a complaint from Oslo, Norway-based Opera Software, the EC rendered a "statement of objections" that Microsoft has unfairly used its Windows operating system monopoly to gain browser market advantage over its competitors in the European Union markets.

Recently, some reports have been suggesting that the latest build of Windows 7, Microsoft's newest operating system, includes the capability of "detaching" Internet Explorer 8 from the operating system. Whether or not that new capability might be related to Opera Software's complaint before the EC is unclear. It's currently difficult to entirely remove Internet Explorer from Windows Vista or Windows XP.

Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer recently described Web browsers as a "key features of operating systems." In the 2002 U.S. federal court case, Microsoft officials had offered the losing argument that Internet explorer is an inseparable part of the Windows operating system.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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