Is Microsoft messing with your hardware?

EC to launch new antitrust probe just days after six others settled
Written by Jo Best, Contributor

EC to launch new antitrust probe just days after six others settled

Just as it looked as though Microsoft's antitrust wrangles were almost settled, the company is facing yet another probe in Europe over its hardware licensing policies

Earlier this week, the software giant managed to settle six of its US cases – brought by five states and the District of Columbia on behalf of consumers – which were based on antitrust and pricing complaints, lightening the Gates company wallet to the tune of around $200m.

With the majority of its US antitrust cases settled, Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel, said during a conference call: "We are well on our way in resolving our consumer class-action lawsuits...We have made important progress." And with Microsoft's response to the EC's antitrust row filed, the company might have thought it had bought itself a bit of breathing space.

Not so - it looks like the EC is ready to start a new scrap in its ongoing set-to with the software company. The investigation will this time be centring on Microsoft's behaviour in the hardware arena.

The Commission will be examining whether Microsoft's licensing agreements could be unfair and confirmed in a statement that it had sent "a series of letters...to a number of companies active in the information and consumer technology sector", adding that "the purpose of these requests for information is to enable the Commission to assess the conditions offered by Microsoft for the licensing of their IT related technology to original equipment manufacturers (OEM's) in the IT and consumer electronics sector."

However, despite a relationship that had tended toward the frosty over the ongoing investigation – Microsoft had requested more time to respond to the EC's initial antitrust enquiry and were granted a piffling extra two weeks, which a spokeswoman described as "disappointing" – the Commission said the letters were just a run-of-the-mill event.

The EC's statement went on to say: "Such letters are a routine step and do not signify that the Commission has reached any conclusions as to the assessment of these licensing conditions under the competition rules".

All of which must have come as somewhat of a surprise to Gates and Co., as the EC said it hadn't contacted Microsoft yet as it was still in the preliminary stages of the probe. It said further details on the letters would remain confidential, but the Financial Times reported that 20 companies had received a missive from the EC, including Hitachi, IBM and Toshiba.

On the domestic scene, Microsoft still has suits to settle with Sun and Burst.com, as well as the state of Massachusetts.

Closer to home, Microsoft is due to appear at a closed hearing on 12 November to answer the EC's antitrust charges, with a ruling expected in the first quarter of next year.

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