The tribulations of EU antitrust authorities

The EU Commission, according to a recent ZDNet article, is in a quandary over whether or not to open a new investigation against Microsoft on grounds that Vista somehow "forecloses competition." Never mind that Microsoft is its own worst enemy with respect to releasing the next generation operating system, with a product that is not only late, but has missed the ever-critical Christmas buying season.

The EU Commission, according to a recent ZDNet article, is in a quandary over whether or not to open a new investigation against Microsoft on grounds that Vista somehow "forecloses competition." Never mind that Microsoft is its own worst enemy with respect to releasing the next generation operating system, with a product that is not only late, but has missed the ever-critical Christmas buying season. The EU, which showed its market-guiding wisdom by ordering Microsoft to create Microsoft can use internal to Windows whatever they damn well please... a media player-free version of Windows that nobody wanted (only after having to backtrack on complete removal of the media handling pipeline due to complaints, oddly enough, from Real Networks, who used it in their own products), wants to continue to show everyone that it can boss around the world's largest American software company just because it can (no, I really don't think that what the European Commission is doing has ANYTHING to do with "benefiting consumers").

But hey, that's just MY opinion, and I'm a guy who views European ideas of "market management" with the same apprehension I would if guys in control booths on the side of highways tried to drive cars on behalf of all the automobiles speeding down it.

What drives me crazy is that the ONLY reason the EU ever seems to have for opening up an investigation of Microsoft is that some COMPETITOR has shown "concern" about new features added to a new release of Windows (which is a bit of a minefield, as finding a feature that some third-party DOESN'T offer for Windows is a challenge in itself). If only mere mortals could gain the attention of the EU in this fashion. Many moons ago, I co-founded a company that specialized in two-way text messaging. Wouldn't it have been nice if, when a larger competitor decided to add a feature, for free,  that we offered at cost in our own product, I could have run to the EU and prevented them from doing that.

Adobe worries that XPS, Microsoft's new portable document format specification that is licensed, for free, to anyone who wants to use it, will displace PDF. Never mind that PDF has a virtual lock on the portable document format market, and that Microsoft has zero plans to ensure cross-platform support for its new format. Other companies might ensure such cross-platform support on Microsoft's behalf, and Adobe Can't Have That. Adobe, in essence, would prefer that it NOT have to face competition from Microsoft, and hence, Adobe wants to prevent Microsoft from being allowed to ship products that understand XPS as a part of Windows (at least, that's what I'm guessing they want).

Well, if Microsoft has to do that, then Adobe needs to make PDF tools that do NOT include the ability to read or write PDF documents. Adobe, for all intents and purposes, "owns" the market for portable document formats, so in the interest of making it possible for others to compete with them, Adobe should be forced to allow consumers to choose what format to which they want to save their documents.

XPS is an open format (as in, licensed at no cost to third parties, though I'm not sure if it meets GPL hurdles), and the most that will happen is that Microsoft will include products that understand the format in Windows. Quick...run down the hall at your office and find a computer that does NOT have an Adobe PDF reader installed. Conservatively, I'd bet 95% of those readers didn't come pre-included with the PC, which is revealing of an essential truth completely ignored by the EU: people and companies spend growing amounts of their time on the Internet, and the average computer user has as much difficulty finding a handler for an unknown media format as my nephew has putting his foot into his mouth (among most other things, both animate and otherwise).

I have four IM clients running on my Microsoft laptop right now. One of them is MSN Messenger, and it isn't the most used one. Guess how many came pre-installed with my system?

Also according to the aforementioned article, Google is complaining that Windows will have a built-in search toolbar. Never mind that oompah loompahs aren't jumping out of the CD-ROM port, tying people up with strands of licorice and woven cotton candy, and FORCING them to use this toolbar. Also never mind that there is nothing to prevent Google from paying OEMs to pre-include their toolbar with every copy of Windows, or convincing users to download the toolbar themselves, something millions of users around the world have already chosen to do (this blogger included).

Basically, the issue comes down to a Google corporation that wants to have their toolbar shipped for free with Microsoft's product, a product that, last I checked, Google spent $0.00 helping to improve. Google wants the same free ride it wants the broadband providers to give its video streaming service, though in that case, they hide behind a surprisingly astute buzzword called "net neutrality" to which a lot of politicians (and a lot of people in the technology industry, it would appear) have trouble saying no.

This all assumes that Microsoft's XPS or Search toolbar are a shoo-in for market dominance. I already mentioned my schizophrenic use of IM (a schizophrenia which seems incredibly common, from what I've seen). In addition, I STILL don't use MSN Search, Virtual Earth, Media Player or Microsoft Money software with any regularity, and I've been a Microsoft employee for almost a year now. Why is that? Because I like the other products better.

Consumers aren't as stupid as the EU Commission or Microsoft's competitors seem to think they are (though belief in consumer stupidity is probably not the real motivation for competitor worry, so much as belief in consumer intelligence and the ability to judge the comparative features of products). If people don't like the Microsoft inclusion, they won't use it.

Yes, yes, I know, Microsoft uses Internet Explorer, and will use XPS internally to Windows. But that's like complaining that your clothing vendor uses cloth manufactured in their own factories, even though you would prefer Italian silk. Microsoft can use internal to Windows whatever they damn well please, at least if basic principles of property rights have any meaning. That doesn't prevent YOU from using Firefox, WinAmp, Jabber, OpenOffice, or Adobe PDF-generating products exclusively atop your Windows machine.

European governments tend to be less likely to hold citizen's hands with respect to issues of personal morality. It's unfortunate that EC attempts to micromanage software markets runs the opposite direction.

By the way, I'm at the Microsoft Embedded Developer Conference (MEDC) in Las Vegas right now, so I apologize ahead of time if my response in the Talkbacks is somewhat patchy.

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