Microsoft EU dispute to last into 2010

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Today (16 December) the EU ends a decade long dispute with Microsoft over its Internet Explorer browser. But the US software company is not out of the woods yet, as outstanding antitrust complaints could see the European Commission continue sparring with the giant in 2010.

In what lawyers are hailing as a "major victory for IT," the EU has approved Microsoft's offer to allow rival browsers to be used on its operating software, addressing industry concerns that the company has an unfair stranglehold on the software market (EurActiv 08/10/09) . 

However, EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes may still have three complaints on her desk that according to lawyers maintain Microsoft's unfair monopoly on the software market. The complaints will likely pass to her successor, Joaquin Almunia, when he takes office at the beginning of February 2010. 

Microsoft said in a statement that if there were issues going forward, "we will work with the Commission to address them to the Commission's satisfaction."

Microsoft monopoly still in firing line 

Maurits Dolmans of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, co-counsel for the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), told EurActiv that there are three "serious and ongoing antitrust complaints" the Commission will be considering in 2010. 

ECIS was one of many third parties in the Microsoft browser dispute. 

Separately, the association of hardware and software providers argues that Microsoft manipulates standards on its office suite so that documents made in alternative formats, like open document format, will appear with errors. 

The issue first arose when Microsoft's OOXML – a programming language - was made the international standard by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) in April 2008. 

In order to get the ISO's approval, Microsoft promised the organisation to change some standards on its software which were not compatible with alternative offers on the market. 

But by "stuffing committees" at the ISO – effectively asking pro-Microsoft consultants to join to get a majority - Microsoft has now backtracked on promised concessions to the ISO, according to Dolmans. 

Dolmans also argues that Microsoft lays claim to up to 235 patents in the theoretically patent-free open source suite, Linux. 

Lastly, Microsoft stands accused of the same predatory pricing that landed Intel with a 1.45 billion euro fine in May 2009. 

Microsoft browser battle over 

Though consumer groups and software vendors told the Commission they liked Microsoft's browser offer, they asked for further neutrality (EurActiv 27/07/09). 

That means that in addition to the company's proposal of a 'ballot screen' giving users a choice between Safari, Google, Mozilla Firefox, Opera Software and Internet Explorer 8, the screen will have no IE logos and buttons and the browsers will appear in a randomised order (originally they appeared alphabetically). 

Moreover, the interoperability of Microsoft products will "look even better", according to a lawyer for the European Committee for Interoperable Systems as now competitors will not only have access to protocols - computer applications' building blocks – but also to the architectural overview – how the blocks work together. 

Ideally, this will allow rival brands to get a stronger foothold on a Microsoft-dominated market but will also allow consumers using different products simultaneously to do so with little or less difficulty than before. 

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