Antitrust regulators from the European Union’s 25 member nations have voted unanimously against Microsoft, finding the software giant guilty of non-compliance with the EU’s 2004 ruling. The decision opens the door for the EU to levy daily fines of up to €2 million (US$2.5 million) on Microsoft. The exact amount of the fine will be decided at another meeting to be held next week.
The debate centers on the EU’s interpretation of Microsoft’s compliance with an earlier judgement handed down in 2004. In that hearing, Microsoft was charged with unfair bundling and anticompetitive behavior, and was told to do three things: pay a fine, release a version of Windows without Media Player bundled, and disclose information about their server products to enable competitors to more easily write software that can interact with them. Microsoft paid the fine, delivered Windows XP N—with the N apparently standing for the version of Windows Nobody wanted to buy—and delivered large stacks of technical documents covering Windows Server protocols.
It was this last deliverable that the EU had problems with. A monitoring trustee, British professor Neil Barrett, was appointed to judge the information released by Microsoft, and his initial response was that the documentation was inadequate. Microsoft replied by offering to license parts of the source code itself, but that effort was dismissed by the EU regulators.
For its part, Microsoft claims to be working hard to deliver the information the EU desires. “Microsoft is dedicating massive resources to meet the aggressive schedule and high-quality standards set by the trustee and the commission in this process,” a Microsoft employee said in a statement. “Our engineers are working around the clock to meet the seventh and final delivery date for this project scheduled for July 18.”
Clearly the prospect of more fines and continued antitrust action is a concern for Microsoft, as much for their public image as for their bank balance. Given this, one wonders what the exact reasons are for the EU’s dissatisfaction with Microsoft’s documentation. A cynical answer might be that the EU simply wants to keep the Microsoft money train flowing. Looking at things from a different angle, perhaps Microsoft wants to make sure that while it may become possible for third parties to build replacements for Microsoft’s server software, the documentation should not make it easy. The issue is made more difficult by the EU’s failure to make it clear exactly what type of information they are looking for.
The EU is not the only governing body to issue fines and judgements against Microsoft. South Korea fined the software giant US$35 million for similar antitrust issues, although without the request to provide additional documentation. Microsoft has agreed to pay this fine. Back in the US, Microsoft recently agreed to extend federal oversight over their 2002 antitrust ruling until at least 2009, and the company has decided to “rewrite significant portions of the documentation in an effort to substantially improve the overall quality of the documentation.”