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Microsoft picks its battles

The software giant has settled outstanding lawsuits with Novell and the CCIA - which leaves it free to focus on RealNetworks and the European Commission

It's always pleasantly surprising when aggressively capitalist technology companies act against type. At first take, Microsoft's announcement yesterday to settle long running disputes with Novell and trade group the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) appear to be just that. A software company that has earned its reputation as a voracious predator appears to have grown tired of being the industry bad guy and now seems keen to clean up its act.

Together with an earlier settlement with Sun, these latest acts of contrition bring the total amount Microsoft has spent settling lawsuits to around $3bn, and could finally spell the end of the ongoing US Department of Justice antitrust suit that dates back to 1998. And more importantly, by securing Novell and the CCIA's commitment to withdraw from any further involvement in a similar EU competition case Microsoft is hoping to decisively end conflicts on all fronts.

In many ways, the settlement with the CCIA is more important than its agreement with Novell. The CCIA was the most powerful voice in the group of companies ranged against Microsoft in Europe. By opening its cheque book, the software giant is hoping to spike the guns of the European Commission's investigation.

Commission spokeswoman Amelia Torres was quick to announce yesterday that the antitrust trial would continue at full speed. But by effectively buying off Novell and the CCIA, Microsoft has isolated the only other major industry voice in the Commission's case, RealNetworks.

In a telling comment yesterday, Microsoft's general counsel Brad Smith described the media player company as "standing alone"; this is exactly the position Netscape found itself in during the browser wars. Given the huge momentum around online video and audio content, Microsoft will do everything in its power to avoid one of the remedies set by the EU -- to sell a version of Windows without its Media Player bundled-in.

Microsoft isn't making nice. It has cleared itself of all other distractions in an effort to focus on the winning a crucial battle -- even if costs another half a billion dollars. The leopard hasn't changed its spots. It's moving in for the kill.