Update: EU launches two new antitrust probes against Microsoft

Opera's complaint against IE leads to one; second involves Office and Open XML

The European Union's antitrust agency announced today that it has opened two new investigations into illegal business practices by Microsoft Corp., one of which was at least partly the result of a complaint filed in 2007 by Norwegian browser maker Opera Software ASA.

Office is the primary focus of the second investigation, according to Jonathan Todd, the spokesman for the EU's competition commission.

"The European Commission has decided to initiate two formal antitrust investigations against Microsoft Corp., one concerning the tying in of software products with its software [operating] system, and the other being the availability of interoperability information," Todd said in Brussels today.

Microsoft said it would work with the EU to resolve the complaint. "We will cooperate fully with the Commission's investigation and provide any and all information necessary," said Jack Evans, a company spokesman, in an e-mail this morning. "We are committed to ensuring that Microsoft is in full compliance with European law and our obligations as established by the European Court of First Instance in its September 2007 ruling."

That ruling, which unanimously rejected Microsoft's appeal, led the company to concede a number of still-outstanding points a month later.

Both investigations have roots in that earlier case, in which the EU accused Microsoft of tying its Windows Media Player software to the Windows operating system with the intention of driving rivals out of the market. The commission also charged that Microsoft was subverting competition by not sharing the technical information necessary for other companies to create products that would better interoperate with Windows servers.

On the tying investigation, Todd gave a nod to Opera, which formally complained to the commission in December, demanding that it force Microsoft to separate Internet Explorer from Windows and require IE to abide by what it called "open Web standards."

"The investigation involving tying ... is partly based on the complaint by Opera and concerns the tying in of Internet Explorer, but we've also had complaints of the tying of other software," said Todd. In a statement issued by the commission, it also called out desktop search and Windows Live -- the latter being the umbrella brand name for Microsoft online services, such as its Web-based e-mail and online storage -- as examples of other tying by Microsoft. "We'll be looking into whether this tying constitutes an abuse of Microsoft's dominance in the operating system market," Todd said.

Opera's reaction to the news was muted. "We are pleased to see the commission's swift response to our filing," said Thomas Ford, Opera's spokesman. "We feel this is an important step to protect the Web's future as an open and interoperable platform."

Interoperability is at the core of the second, separate investigation, which was prompted by a complaint filed by the European Committee for Interoperable Systems, a trade group that has been vocal about Microsoft's monopolistic practices. ECIS members include some of Microsoft's fiercest and longest-running rivals, including Adobe Systems Inc., Corel Corp., IBM, Opera, Oracle Corp., RealNetworks Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

That complaint, said Todd, "in particular [involves] the [interoperability] information regarding a range of Microsoft products called Office. We want to make sure Microsoft is not abusing its position in the market by refusing interoperability information which is necessary for competitors to produce products which work properly with Microsoft Office."

Office 2007's native file format -- Open XML, which has banged heads with ODF (the open-source Open Document Format for Office Applications) -- will be one area of the investigation, said the commission. Others will include unnamed server software and Microsoft's .Net development framework.

The commission's announcement today shouldn't come as a surprise to the company. After noting the concessions Microsoft made in October, Commissioner Neelie Kroes warned that the firm was not out of the woods. "New issues may arise," she cautioned, adding that there were "a couple of other cases on our desks" concerning Microsoft.

Todd declined to set a timetable for the investigation, which, if history is any indicator, will be long and drawn out. The EU's 2004 ruling, for example, stemmed from investigations begun the decade before and was finally put to rest only in September 2007.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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