Just when Microsoft thought the bulk of its antitrust woes were behind it, regulators in the European Union announced that they have opened two new such investigations against the software maker.
The investigations will examine whether Microsoft abused its dominant position in the market to unfairly tie its Web browser to the Windows operating system, as well as look at the interoperability of Microsoft software with rival products.
The two investigations follow a recent complaint filed by Norwegian browser developer Opera Software and a 2006 complaint brought by the European Committee for Interoperable Systems, which counts Microsoft rivals IBM, Nokia, Sun, RealNetworks and Oracle among its members.
A statement issued by the commission Jan. 14 said the ECIS complaint accuses Microsoft of illegally refusing to disclose interoperability information across a broad range of products, including information related to its Office suite, a number of its server products and also in relation to the .Net Framework.
“The Commission’s examination will therefore focus on all these areas, including the question whether Microsoft’s new file format Office Open XML, as implemented in Office, is sufficiently interoperable with competitors’ products,” the statement said.
The complaint by Opera alleges that Microsoft is engaged in the illegal tying of its Internet Explorer product to its dominant Windows operating system, the commission said, noting that other allegations of Microsoft tying some of its separate software products, including desktop search and Windows Live, have also been brought to its attention.
“The Commission’s investigation will therefore focus on allegations that a range of products have been unlawfully tied to sales of Microsoft’s dominant operating system,” it said. However, the commission noted “initiation of proceedings does not imply that the Commission has proof of an infringement. It only signifies that the Commission will further investigate the case as a matter of priority.”
Microsoft Will Cooperate
For its part, a Microsoft spokesperson would only say that it will cooperate fully with the commission’s investigation and provide any and all information necessary.
“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,” the spokesperson said.
But the two investigations do not focus on peripheral functionalities such as the media players, as others have done, but rather on the core of Microsoft’s business: its operating and office suite software, Andy Updegrove, a partner with Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove LLP, said in his ConsortiumInfo.org standards blog.
“Both investigations focus on the benefits that Microsoft gains by combining features, such as search and Windows Live, into its operating system. But the investigation sparked by the Opera complaint also includes some novel and interesting features, based upon Opera’s contention that Microsoft’s failure to conform Internet Explorer to prevailing open standards puts its competitors at a disadvantage,” Updegrove said in the blog post.
The investigations will also look into whether Microsoft has failed to adequately open up its Office Open XML file format, or to take adequate measures to ensure that Office is sufficiently interoperable with competing products.
“This would seem to indicate that Microsoft’s strategy of offering Office Open XML to [international standards body] Ecma, and then to ISO/IEC JTC1, may fail to achieve its objective, whether or not the format is finally approved as a global standard,” he said.
The likely reasons for that include the software giant’s heavy-handed actions during the ISO/IEC review period that ended unsuccessfully on Sept. 2, he said.
Microsoft also refused to implement ODF (Open Document Format), “consigning the marketplace to a web of imperfect converters and translators that are likely to always result in more complex Office documents being slightly less than perfect when converted into other word processing suites,” Updegrove said.
Microsoft had been pursuing a high-risk, high-wire act strategy since ODF was first adopted by Massachusetts in 2005, he said, noting that “today that strategy just grew riskier.”