The EU, in its infinite wisdom, is evidently set to open up a couple of new fronts in its never-ending battle with Microsoft. Not a great use of taxpayer money.
Lets take these one a time. First Opera’s complaint.
Microsoft is alleged to have engaged in illegal tying of its Internet Explorer product to its dominant Windows operating system. The complaint alleges that there is ongoing competitive harm from Microsoft’s practices, in particular in view of new proprietary technologies that Microsoft has allegedly introduced in its browser that would reduce compatibility with open internet standards, and therefore hinder competition.
Opera, the little browser that couldn’t. I am here working in a Firefox browser window, with a Flock instance open on my second screen for email search and calendar. According to most estimates Firefox’s share of the market is growing. In some European geographies it is 25% of the market. IE is on the back foot. Alternative browsers can and are successfully competing in the market.
So what about Office?
Microsoft is alleged to have illegally refused to disclose interoperability information across a broad range of products, including information related to its Office suite, a number of its server products, and also in relation to the so called .NET Framework. The Commission’s examination will therefore focus on all these areas, including the question whether Microsoft’s new file format Office Open XML, as implemented in Office, is sufficiently interoperable with competitors’ products.
But it seems like everything works with Office these days. Google Docs does an amazing job of opening and saving Microsoft Office files (even presos). OpenOffice ditto. Any number of smaller startups work pretty seamlessly with MS docs (notably Zoho). The market is so locked down to competitors that Adobe has just decided to play. I know the ODF crowd would spit at the assertion that some barriers to competition have been sidelined. Its true third parties have to reverse engineer compatibility – but they seem pretty damned good at it.
From a pragmatic perspective it seems to me the Office market is more competitive than it has been for a long time. IBM, for example, now offers a free suite called Symphony.
The EU could possibly do with a crash course in XML. The whole point of all these hundreds of millions of dollars spent on XML and XML tooling these last few years has been to enable translation. Translation between different languages. Look at the EU. It doesn’t mandate a single language, does it, that everyone has to interoperate with? The EU has 23 official languages. You want to translate from German to French – knock yourself out.
The world is changing. Documents today are not static. They flow through networks, largely enabled by a bunch of web standards. Some companies choose to go end to end Microsoft, for its “integrated innovation”. Other companies choose to go a non-Microsoft route to avoid integrated aggravation. That’s choice.
Today it is primarily dorks that use alternatives to Microsoft Office- but that is not to these future dwellers don’t represent a likely future. Lets also bear in mind that complex macro users are somewhat of a edge case (macros are one of the things that don’t translate well).
If the EU wanted to be truly effective in the area of doc formats and so on perhaps it should mandate a “single language” – that is a single document format. Its called market pressure. To be fair all its doing is announcing investigations made at the behest of complaints from Opera and ECIS (otherwise known as the Anyone But Microsoft lobbying club). In other words these investigations may lead nowhere.
But from my perspective is hugely disappointing the EU would add this noise to the signal. Just a few weeks came the outstanding news that hell was becoming all frosty: Microsoft and SAMBA had agreed a deal.
update: Apparently the FT largely agrees:
Microsoft’s opponents suspect it wants to extend its dominant platform to the internet and that it will try to do so by controlling standards. But it may not succeed. Nimbler rivals such as Google already have applications running on the internet. Microsoft’s efforts to set international standards for a new version of Office have hit opposition from governments too. If the market forces the company to open up, then EU action may not be needed.
Second, should the Commission’s inquiry uncover evidence of unfair practice, then going on a prosecutorial rampage should be a last resort. That would add only to lawyers’ billable hours. Remedies may again be hard to enforce and rendered irrelevant by product evolution.
There are signs Microsoft is ready to respond to a flexible and diplomatic approach. The company’s reaction to the investigation has been to stress its co-operation. That is a good omen. It shows that Microsoft has learnt from experience. The company has every incentive to placate the competition regulator. Negotiation could yield results. The Commission’s goal is to make software markets more competitive. Its inquiry should be forward looking and not just rake over the past.
picture courtesy of malias on Flickr under a creativecommons 2.0 license.
Microsoft is a client.