Microsoft Faces European Antitrust Hearing in June

European Union (EU) antitrust regulators have set an early June date for an oral hearing during which Microsoft Corp. can defend its practice of bundling Internet Explorer (IE) with Windows news reports said last week.

Jonathan Todd, spokesman for the EU's Competition Commission, told several news outlets, including the Reuters and Dow Jones wire services, that the agency had set June 3-5 for Microsoft to respond to charges that it "shields" IE from competition.

Todd did not immediately reply to a request for confirmation. Sources close to Microsoft, however, said that while the company has requested the hearing -- a procedural matter that was required when it submitted its written response last week -- it has not made a final decision about whether it will actually go through with the conference.

The hearing would be Microsoft's chance to answer EU charges that it "distorts competition" in the browser market by including IE with Windows. The "tying," as the commission put it, gives IE "an artificial distribution advantage which other Web browsers are unable to match."

The accusations stem from a December 2007 complaint by Opera Software ASA, the Oslo-based development firm whose Opera browser currently accounts for less than 1% of the market. At the time, Opera said IE "harmed the Web" and demanded Microsoft unbundle the browser and adhere to Web standards.

Since January, several chief browser rivals, including Mozilla Corp. and Google Inc., which make Firefox and Chrome, respectively, have joined the case as third-party participants. Three weeks ago, a trade group that includes other competitors, among them Adobe, IBM and Oracle, were also given access to the allegations. Companies that have been granted third-party status will be allowed to participate in the June hearing.

Although the commission has not specified what it might require of Microsoft, it has hinted it could fine the company, force it to allow users to choose alternate browsers or require it to disable IE.

Microsoft has added a "kill switch" of sorts to Windows 7 that will let users prevent IE8 from running. Opera's CEO, however, has said that he considers Microsoft's move to be insufficient. The company's Windows 7 Release Candidate (RC), which is expected to publicly launch tomorrow, will be the first chance most users have of testing that kill switch.

The case could go on for years after the hearing. In an earlier antitrust action, in which the EU charged Microsoft with blocking competitors' access to technical information they needed to make their software work smoothly with Windows, Microsoft defended itself at a November 2003 hearing. The case was finally settled in October 2007, after Microsoft lost a critical appeal and acknowledged it would comply with the EU's demands.

According to Web metrics firm Net Applications Inc., IE accounted for 66.1% of the browser market in April, down 0.72% from the previous month.

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