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The EC & Microsoft Contemplate Beating Their Swords into Plowshares

The EC said Wednesday that a final settlement of the browser issue could be all of a month or two away

After 10 years of trench warfare and a body count of close to $1.8 billion in fines, the European Commission is getting ready to pass Microsoft the roach of concord and close the book on the case.

The EC said Wednesday that a final settlement of the browser issue, Europe's updated version of the old Netscape case that saw Microsoft branded a monopoly in the first place, could be all of a month or two away.

All it will take is group think and none of Microsoft's browser rivals finding too big a hole in the terms of the pact during the next month while the EC conducts what it calls a "formal market test" of the proposed remedy.

Browser makers, hardware OEMs, trade associations and consumer watchdogs will have until November 7 to comment.

The EC, which realizes it's going to hear grousing, says it's prepared to listen to substantive complaints but figures "Microsoft's commitments would indeed address our competition concerns."

The European Committee for Interoperable Systems, the trade group that includes Sun, Oracle, IBM and Opera, which initiated the browser complaint to the EC, issued a statement to Reuters saying, "the settlement does not appear to deal with the inadequacies of Microsoft's standards compliance, unfair pricing practices or other concerns related to patent abuse or standards manipulation."

The remark is off point since the EC's statement of objections never touched on those things. Of course it would serve the purposes of Microsoft's enemies if the EC was hung permanently around its neck like an albatross.

Anyway, after a month of video conferences with the EC, Microsoft has agreed to make further concessions in the "ballot screen" proposal it came up with in July, basically adjusting it to the objections raised in August when the EC conducted what it calls an "informal market test."

The July proposal followed Microsoft's threat to remove Internet Explorer from any Windows operating system it shipped in Europe.

OEMs will continue to be able to pre-load any darn browser they please and the wrath of Microsoft will not descend upon them. They can chuck Internet Explorer completely if they like.

Existing and future Internet Explorer users in Europe are going to start to see the so-called ballot screen turn up on their PCs - whether they like it or not - explaining what a browser is and offering them a choice of 11 other browsers besides IE.

There'll be a "tell me more" button for each of the browsers so the companies can make their pitch and users will be able to turn off IE and tuck it in a separate cache on their hard disk if the sight of it so offends them. They don't have to but they can.

They'll be able to install as many browsers as they like and turn them on and off at will, using any of them for their default.

Of course it may be idle to remark that even people who have trouble mastering the light switch can do this already but they don't have a cute ballot screen where the icons representing the top 12 browsers by market share in Europe will be displayed in two rows: a row of the top five, including IE, laid out in alphabetical order so IE doesn't get any preference and a second row of the next seven by market share again in alphabetical order.

Since the settlement is good for five years, the identity of these browsers could change, which is one of the ostensible reasons why Microsoft has made the browser screen a simple web page rather than a Windows application like some of its critics wanted. It says it's easier to update. And Microsoft has agreed the EC can have lingering oversight of its behavior regarding the ballot screen.

It will be interesting to see if market shares change.

In a press conference called for four in the morning Microsoft time Wednesday, the company's general counsel Brad Smith remarked that distribution of the ballot screen via Windows Update will be limited to IE users. Microsoft's browser rivals don't want their own users to have any choices.

And to prevent still another antitrust investigation from raising its ugly head, Microsoft also kicked in another concession that it wasn't ever asked to make and that Smith characterized as "the single biggest legal commitment in the history of the software industry to promote interoperability."

The company has agreed to reveal more about its Windows, Window Server, Office, Exchange and SharePoint workings to third-party developers, including open source developers who were bound to complain about it to the EC anyway.

It says it'll provide technical documentation so third-party products interoperate better with the Microsoft widgetry. It's also committing to support certain standards like the OOXML rival ODF (OpenDocument Format) and to "fully" document how these standards are supported.

For a "nominal sum," Smith said, third parties will be able to get the specifications and legally binding warranties.

And just to make sure that Symantec and McAfee don't stir up more trouble with the EC for Microsoft, it said it would disclose certain programming interfaces in its security products.

The interoperability pledge is contingent on the EC accepting the browser settlement, which is now supposed to be more usable and evenhanded than the July draft proposal.

Smith used some run-on question about Yahoo at that four-in-the-morning press conference to reflect that every time the subject of competition and IT came up during the last 10 years everybody turned and looked at Microsoft. It's time somebody else had a turn, he said, and offered a few suggestions: Google and search; IBM and the mainframe; and Oracle and Sun.

His quip about IBM proved prophetic because a few hours later it was discovered that the Justice Department has opened a preliminary investigation of Big Blue's behavior in the mainframe market contrary to its undertakings to the DOJ years ago.

This time, people being subpoenaed say, the probe's not going to take 13 years like it did the last time, suggesting it could be a highly entertaining winter watching IBM squirm. The European Commission is also being lobbied to bring a statement of objections against the giant supra-national.

Oh, yeah, about Yahoo. It's still unclear, Smith said, whether the EC has jurisdiction or whether the German national authorities do the review.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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