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Analysis: Microsoft charged with monopoly abuse again

Europe launches new antitrust investigation

The latest antitrust charges against Microsoft almost certainly won't be the last. At the same time it opened the investigation into the bundling of IE, the Commission also opened a separate probe to see whether Microsoft withholds information from companies that want to make products compatible with its Microsoft Office productivity suite.

It is also looking for interoperability problems with Windows server products and Microsoft's .Net software framework, following a complaint by the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), a trade group representing companies including IBM, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Red Hat and Opera.

This separate probe is ongoing, said Jonathan Todd, a spokesman for the Commission.

ECIS said Microsoft deliberately withholds interoperability information in order to put rival software companies at a disadvantage; and bases its complaint on the part of the earlier European antitrust ruling that found Microsoft guilty of withholding interoperability information about its Windows server operating system.

"There was a fear that the Commission might be moving on to other battles, having won a resounding victory over Microsoft already," said Thomas Vinje, legal counsel for ECIS, citing other powerful technology companies such as Intel that are the subject of escalating antitrust battles in Europe.

But the fact that the Commission is pushing ahead with the IE case "makes me more optimistic it will press charges in the interoperability case", he said.

The real fight with Microsoft is only just beginning, though. The remedies the Commission demanded in the first antitrust case against Microsoft were largely ineffectual, especially on the bundling side. The true value of that case lies in its power of precedence and can only really be appreciated by lawyers and judges, Vinje said.

The cases that follow, including the IE charges, the interoperability case and possibly others, will be much more significant for consumers and competitors than that first antitrust ruling.

On the bundling side, the Commission is unlikely to make the same mistake it made the first time, and will most likely demand that IE is stripped out of Windows entirely, instead of calling for two versions of the operating system as it did before.

Meanwhile, if the Commission presses charges in the new interoperability case championed by ECIS it could break down the biggest barriers preventing open source operating systems such as Linux from competing with Microsoft on personal computer desktops. 

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