Microsofts EU Plan Still Flawed, FSFE Says

Open-source developers are not impressed with Microsoft's revised antitrust compliance plan, currently awaiting approval by the European Commission.

Ahead of an important decision by the European Commission on Microsofts antitrust compliance proposal, competitors have criticized the plan as deeply flawed.

At the end of May, Microsoft Corp. submitted a revised plan to the Commission on how it would comply with a landmark EU antitrust ruling.

That ruling required the company to help competitors achieve full interoperability with Microsofts workgroup servers by giving them access to information such as communications protocols.

If Microsofts plan doesnt meet with the Commissions approval, the company could face fines of up to $5 million per day.

The antitrust remedies are designed to allow some competition back into the market for workgroup servers.

In 2004, the Commission found that Microsoft had abused its dominant position on the desktop to boost its server market, because competing servers cant guarantee full interoperability with Microsoft products. The abuse was considered serious enough to warrant a record fine of 497 million euros.

In June, the Commission began market-testing the proposal with industry groups such as the FSFE (Free Software Foundation Europe) and the Samba interoperability project. The Commission is expected to announce the results of those tests any day now.

In early June, EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said she was determined to ensure that the antitrust decision was properly implemented, including "the ability for developers of open-source software to take advantage of the remedy."

At the time, Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said the company had made "tough concessions" to resolve problems with earlier proposals. The changes included offering more information under royalty-free licenses and allowing recipients to choose between packages of information suitable for different needs.

However, the plan remains an unworkable mess for open-source and proprietary software companies alike, according to the FSFE.

"They have improved on the initial offer, but the problem is that the initial offer is deeply flawed," said Carlo Piana, a partner with Tamos Piana & Partners, which represents the FSFE. "The whole approach is wrong."

Microsoft is making a large amount of information available for license, but its difficult or impossible for developers to know whether they are getting the information they need, Piana said. Much of the information provided is useless, and some critical parts are missing, he said.

"You should have a way of licensing anything you need—any information necessary to accomplish certain tasks. Instead, they hand you a pile of paper, and youre expected to understand whats inside," he said. "Even without taking free software into account, what theyre proposing is highly inefficient. It would be hard to understand for anyone, including proprietary developers."

/zimages/3/28571.gifRead more here about FSF Europes involvement with the Microsoft antitrust compliance case.

More information has been placed under a royalty-free license, but the license still doesnt cover some basic interoperability information, according to Volker Lendecke, co-founder of open-source consultancy SerNet (Service Network) and a leading Samba developer.

"We really want all of the protocols needed to make Windows clients and Windows servers fully believe we are a Windows-compatible implementation. To compete, we need to be able to match the behavior of the network one to one," Lendecke said.

That level of information still isnt included under the royalty-free license, he said.

Open-source projects such as Samba arent compatible with the per-seat licenses offered by Microsoft, because they dont keep track of the number of copies installed. Microsofts latest offer also restricts developers from publishing their implementations under open-source licenses.

If Microsoft were to really make interoperability possible it would need to offer competitors assistance on a level similar to what it offers its own developers through MSDN (the Microsoft Developer Network), said the FSFEs Piana. The FSFE has suggested specific improvements to the Commission, such as for Microsoft to release its machine-readable IDL (Interface Description Language) files, containing exact interoperability information, or to appoint an engineer to provide developers with what they need during the implementation process.

"Thats the most efficient way to disseminate information to partners, not just heres the menus and stuff, take it, " Piana said.

That said, the FSFE doesnt expect the Commission to make such dramatic changes, if it makes any at all—at least for now. If the Commission demands too much, it could lead to a successful appeal by Microsoft, which would undo even the slight gains made so far, Piana said.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about about Microsofts antitrust compliance plan meeting a chilly reception in the EU.

"This case is key for the next 10 years in European competition law, and the Commission is fully committed to achieving a real result that will help the market," Piana said. "For the time being they will not push very much for free software, thats the sad reality. But there will be room for improvement."

The FSFE is pinning its hopes on the outcome of the broader case, which is currently under deliberation in the Court of First Instance. When the CFI makes a decision on the cases merits in about a years time, the Commission could be given more scope to act, Piana said.

The progress of the merits case was been delayed recently when it was moved from a five-judge team led by Hubert Legal to the 13-judge Grand Chamber. Some legal experts expect the move to delay any decision until the end of next year. Microsoft can still lodge an appeal after the decision.

Microsoft declined to make specific comments, saying it is awaiting the results of the Commissions market testing.

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