A Mac-eye view of Microsoft's EU defeat

European courts are still carrying the torch forward over Microsoft's antitrust practices. That news may bring a smile to longtime Mac users who know all too well the ways that Microsoft can squeeze its competition, whether by withholding compatibility technology, or at times, even its products.

European courts are still carrying the torch forward over Microsoft's antitrust practices. That news may bring a smile to longtime Mac users who know all too well the ways that Microsoft can squeeze its competition, whether by withholding compatibility technology, or at times, even its products. Or at least, it certainly gave the appearance of the same.

Microsoft on Monday said it will comply with a ruling by European regulators to stop a number of anticompetitive practices, such as the embedding of applications deep into the operating system and the withholding of server API information to competitors.

Microsoft Word 6 for Mac icon
For some context, I spoke with Henry Norr, a former editor of MacWEEK in the early days of the Mac and the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who covered the initial antitrust trials here in the US and in the EU. He now works as a freelance technology reviewer and writer.

Norr said he admired the Europeans for standing up to Microsoft. Still, he said there were troubles with the ruling.

"The solution of making [Microsoft] sell a version without the Media Player seems hollow. It's not going to have much effect, since to my understanding, none of the OEMs, or very few, have picked up on Windows N."

Windows N is the version without Media Player. However, Norr said that forcing Microsoft to open up its server APIs, could be significant.

"That is the [key] decision if they can enforce it — no US court has succeeded in enforcing that requirement on Microsoft. But forcing Microsoft to open its interfaces is a better route to go than forcing Microsoft to sell stripped-down versions of its software."

"If [Microsoft] wants to pack features into the OS, it's a tough sell to consumers to say 'we're going to force Microsoft not to deliver all the goods they can deliver.' So, politically and socially, that's not a winning proposition," Norr continued.

He said that Redmond can simply price products upwards to make it not worth anyone's while to buy the stripped-down version. Just as Microsoft has done with Windows N. He said that the market will benefit from compatibility and support for standard interfaces, "not limited, half-assed versions."

Norr said that he was always amused by the differences between the approaches by Microsoft and Apple towards integration. Early in the lawsuit that Microsoft made the case that Web browsing was an OS function.

"Now that was crazy — it's obvious that it's an application-level function," he said.

"Macs have standard interfaces and apps can use them. The Apple provided [features] aren't not so deeply entwined with the OS that you can't ignore them or get rid of them. Microsoft tangled up the browser and media player so deeply with the OS that its really hard to get rid of them or use a substitute. "

Here's a piece of Mac history that resonates with this ruling and even with current Mac-Microsoft events. And there's also a Henry Norr connection.

It may be hard for many readers to imagine, but some of the most popular and important Windows programs began on the Mac. I'm talking about Microsoft Word and Excel, the foundations of Microsoft Office for Windows.

Now at one time, Microsoft said it would keep parity between the two platforms. However, that promise quickly lapsed.

Back in the summer of 1994, some in the Mac community pointed to the lengthy delays of Word 6.0 and Excel 5.0 for the Mac. They said that Microsoft was trying to strangle the Mac platform in higher education and technical markets by withholding these vital applications. In addition, these versions were supposed to be native for the PowerPC RISC chip, made by the consortium of Apple, IBM and Motorola, and considered by the Mac community to be the answer to the Wintel machine.

In the June 20 issue of MacWEEK, Henry Norr wrote an opinion piece about the issue, titled: Gates may love the Mac, but delays do real damage. In the piece, Norr overlooked the criticism of Mac faithful to Microsoft programs' interface irregularities. Then he asked some tough questions.

But even Microsoft sympathizers like me have to wonder what's holding up the new versions. Apple is fighting for its life, and it needs to convince customers, developers, investors, potential licensees and even its own restless employees that the RISC Macs have momentum. The absence of Word and Excel leaves a gaping hole in the native-application lists.

It's not just a matter of exploiting the PowerPC, either — there's also the question of parity with Windows. Microsoft used to say its core-code strategy would make possible more or less simultaneous release of new versions for both platforms. But if the new Word and Excel for the Mac don't arrive until September, as now seems likely, they'll be roughly nine and six months, respectively, behind their Windows twins. Even Apple wouldn't call that simultaneous.

At the time, Microsoft execs blamed the delays on such challenges as tuning and testing a whole new code base for Word, supporting Apple's latest software and creating new development tools for the PowerPC.

Of course, we see very similar excuses replayed this summer with the creeping delays for Microsoft Office 2008 for the Mac (formerly 2007). This time the difficulties are the transition of the Mac to the Intel processor and Microsoft's Mac Business Unit needing to move from CodeWarrior to Xcode.

Back in 1994, Norr continued:

Still, it's hard to believe that Microsoft has done everything possible to get the new Mac Office to market promptly. No doubt there are real technical challenges, but the long lag must also reflect discretionary allocation of engineering and testing resources.

Yup. Sounds familiar.

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