Small change for Microsoft

The EU-Microsoft antitrust case is not about a €497m fine or costs being awarded, or even the unbundling of Windows Media Player; it's about how Microsoft interoperates with the world
Written by Leader , Contributor

A decade is a long time in IT. Microsoft's antitrust case began nearly 10 years ago, and a lot has changed in that time, as the company's general counsel, Brad Smith, pointed out in response to the ruling by the European Court of First Instance.

The number of languages supported in Windows has risen, the number of European employees has tripled, and Microsoft's R&D spend in Europe has exploded.

Smith neglected to mention some other facts: that Microsoft's revenues from Europe have also exploded, and that some things in Microsoft never change — specifically its attitude.

This story is not about Microsoft having to pay a €497m fine or about it having to pay costs. It's not even about having to provide a version of Windows in Europe without Media Player installed. It's really not even about consumers having more choice. If anything, the presence or otherwise of Microsoft Media Player in European versions of Windows has served to cloud the real issue over consumer choice: that Microsoft's abuse of its monopoly position threatened other media players and, therefore, had long-term implications for the survival of non-Microsoft media players, and support for non-Microsoft formats by media producers.

What is at the heart of this case is the issue of interoperability. Smith's boiler-plate response to the verdict contains the following quote, which anyone who has followed the case may find curious: "As we read today's decision more carefully, we're hopeful that some aspects of it may add some clarity that will help us all implement these remaining parts of the decision."

In fact the latest ruling is very clear — just as clear, in fact, as the previous ruling that it upholds. It says that interoperability does not, as Microsoft has contended, demand sharing source code. Redmond is keen to blur the distinction between making its systems easier to integrate with and disclosing source code, in order to justify its reluctance. What company in its right mind would want to give away its crown jewels? It's simply doing what any business in its position would reasonably do.

But, as Smith is keen to point out, Microsoft is not the company it was when this process began back in 1997. Redmond's reserves run deep and, while it's far from being on the back foot yet, it's definitely off balance. The cash and lawyers needed to drag this case out in another appeal are certainly there, but the stomach for another fight may not be. Google, Apple, Linux and open source, stalled innovation, web applications, mismanagement, and loss of direction are all taking their toll. The European Commission may not have bowed Microsoft but it has inflicted another gash on a company facing the very real possibility of death by a thousand cuts.

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