Can the EU make sense of Windows?

The European Court has finally upheld the EU's decision on Microsoft's anti-competitive behaviour.

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By  Mark Sutton Published  September 17, 2007

The European Court has finally upheld the EU's decision on Microsoft's anti-competitive behaviour. After nine years of legal wrangling though, it's hard to see how the situation is going to benefit anyone but the lawyers, because even if Microsoft decides not to appeal, which seems highly unlikely, any meaningful enforcement of the decision is likely to be as easy as herding cats.

Under the ruling, Microsoft is now obliged to provide more access to its code for interoperability with competitors, and also to keep on selling a version of Windows without Media Player. Both of these are fair enough in principle - Microsoft shouldn't use its dominant position to keep other companies products from working with its operating systems, nor should it be able to use its dominance in one segment to unfairly leverage market share in another segment. The European Court's decision was pretty stern - Microsoft is guilty as charged.

But the big problem is applying the remedy - a twofold problem of who decides how much of its code Microsoft has to reveal, and how much Microsoft might be forced to un-bundle applications from operating systems in future.

Microsoft's one success in the appeal was the removal of an independent monitor to keep an eye on the company. The court thought it was unfair that Microsoft should have to pay to have a third party keeping an eye on its activities for ever more, but without some sort of third party involvement, it's difficult to see how lawyers and software engineers from each party are going to reach agreement on how much code has to be released to allow fair competition.

The IT industry has already gone some way to resolving the interoperability issue through its own commercial agreements - even Sun and Microsoft now work together. While these agreements can't be regarded as selfless, they at least show that the industry has moved on from the days of all-out cutthroat competition.

The bundled applications issue is even trickier. Microsoft has removed Media Player from Windows XP, but the resulting product, Windows XP hasn't had any real uptake among consumers, making it a curiosity at best. Media Player is just one application among many added features in Windows XP, without even considering Vista.

There are plenty of third party software vendors offering applications such as web browsing, desktop search or firewall, and they all need to be given the chance to work with Microsoft operating systems, but in terms of unbundling existing applications, the highly integrated nature of the latest generation of operating systems means that it would be difficult to remove all of them from Windows, and the resulting stripped down OS wouldn't appeal to anyone bar hard core geeks. Compulsory removal of security features would only be a step backwards in protecting against web-wide problems like DDoS attacks.

Whether or not Microsoft buys time with an appeal, it looks like the EU is determined to try and bring the software giant to heel, raising the prospect of one of most bureaucratic organizations in the world interfering with one of the most complex pieces of software in the world - like herding cats, its not going to be an easy task.

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