Microsoft Gains an Ally in Its Antitrust Battle in Europe

Microsoft gained a familiar ally in its latest antitrust battle with the European Commission on Monday when the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT) was accepted as an interested third party in the case.

The software giant has a little more time to muster further supporters: Last week, the Commission granted Microsoft more time to respond to the formal statement of objections it issued in January, after already giving it a two-week extension. The new deadline is April 28.

ACT stood by Microsoft in an earlier case antitrust case that resulted in Microsoft being found guilty of monopoly abuse in 2004. It made passionate interventions during hearings with the European Commission, and during the appeals process at the Court of First Instance in Luxembourg, which Microsoft also lost.

It looks set to make similar interventions this time.

"There is something surreal about the entire concept of this complaint," ACT said in a statement. "Not only has the same case already been adjudicated in the U.S., but Microsoft's Internet Explorer is no longer even the number one browser in Europe, let alone the dominant one," it said, citing market share figures from StatCounter that place Firefox 3.0 a fraction of a percent ahead of Internet Explorer 7 in Europe.

ACT did not cite the full findings of StatCounter's March 31 report, which also said that, all versions of the two browsers combined, Internet Explorer still had a 10 percent lead over Firefox in Europe.

European antitrust rules forbid a company from using a dominant position in one market to distort competition in a neighboring market. In this case Microsoft is abusing the undisputed dominance of Windows in the market for PC operating systems by attaching its Internet Explorer (IE) browser to Windows, the Commission said in its statement of objections issued in January.

"IE's market share doesn't matter, what counts is that it is being given a leg-up by being bundled into Windows, because this makes it the default browser on over 90 percent of all PCs," said a person close to the Commission's antitrust division who asked not to be named.

ACT said that the remedies being considered by the Commission, which the regulator hopes will restore fair competition to the browser market, would "harm developers working on the Microsoft platform."

"The code which comprises Internet Explorer includes functionality that many developers take advantage of through Application Programming Interfaces (API's). If this code is removed, it could force many developers to rewrite and retest their applications," ACT said.

The remedies currently under consideration include offering users a choice of browser from the first moment they install Windows on their computers. This would comprise a list of the main browsers. Alternatively, the Commission may ask computer manufacturers to choose a browser other than IE to install on new computers.

The Commission also has allies in the browser case. A number of organizations favorable to the Commission's position have been granted interested third party status, including Google, which recently introduced its own browser, Chrome; Mozilla, the open source collaboration behind the Firefox web browser; the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), a trade group representing rival software companies including Oracle, Sun and IBM, and the industry group Free Software Foundation Europe.

Microsoft hasn't said yet whether it plans to ask for an oral hearing from the antitrust regulator and the interested third parties, but most observers expect it to do so.

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