The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that EU regulators have announced a third investigation into Microsoft's conduct on the desktop. This latest action demonstrates that while the EU has settled the case against Microsoft that ran for almost a decade, it remains as suspicious as ever regarding the software vendor's conduct, notwithstanding Microsoft's less combative stance in recent years. The news can be found in a story reported by Charles Forelle bylined in Brussells this morning.
According to the Journal, the investigation will focus on whether Microsoft "violated antitrust laws during a struggle last year to ratify its Office software file format as an international standard." The article also says that the regulators are "stepping up scrutiny of the issue." The Journal cites the following as the type of activity it will look into:
In the months and weeks leading up to [last summer's vote on OOXML], Microsoft resellers and other allies joined standards bodies en masse -- helping swell the Italian group, for instance, from a half-dozen members to 85. Opponents said Microsoft stacked committees. People familiar with the matter say EU regulators are now questioning whether Microsoft's actions were illegal. Microsoft said at the time that any committee expansion had the effect of making more voices heard; it also said rival International Business Machines Corp. mobilized on the other side of the vote.
A Microsoft spokesman referred to a statement issued last month, in which the company said it would "cooperate fully" with the EU regulator and was "committed to ensuring" the company is in compliance with EU law.
This newest investigation follows only one month after the EU announced two other investigations, one into the integration of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Web browser into Office and Windows over competing alternatives, and another relating to the degree and ease of interoperability that Microsoft permits other vendors to achieve with Office.
The investigation will be especially welcome in standards circles, due to the wide range of reports from the field alleging misconduct by Microsoft. Although, as noted in the Journal article, Microsoft has claimed that IBM has engaged in similar conduct, I am not personally aware of any such incidents that have been reliably reported.
The results of this new investigation will, unfortunately, take far too long to become public to have much impact on the upcoming final vote on OOXML. Still, the fact that the EU is opening an investigation into Microsoft’s conduct – and no one else’s – is telling.
I have found the OOXML saga to be particularly fascinating in the way that it has caught Microsoft at something of a crossroads. The "old" Microsoft of Bill Gates was renowned for being a street fighter, bent on not just beating its competitors, but on "crushing" them. In that spirit, it fought both US and EU regulators tooth and nail, greeting news of new investigations with press releases of its own, vowing to fight to the finish to vindicate its right to compete in its own aggressive fashion.
But with Steve Ballmer taking over as CEO, there was supposed to be a kinder, gentler Microsoft – one that would play nicely with its competitors. When antitrust regulators in turn challenged this new Microsoft, it issued not challenges to fight to the end to prove that it had done nothing illegal, but statements promising to "cooperate fully."
But at the same time, Microsoft is still a tough competitor. As Microsoft’s Director of Corporate Standards Jason Matusow famously warned at his blog last year:
Make no mistake; all parties are looking at the full picture to find strategies that will result in the outcome they desire. Provided – of course – that they do so within the context of the rules that apply to the process, this is exactly what one should expect to happen. It is going to be a very interesting next few months.
Indeed, the months that followed proved to be interesting indeed. Microsoft said that some of its employees became over zealous, most flagrantly in Sweden, where marketing assists were promised to several business partners as incentives to join the national standards committee and vote for OOXM.
Now, it appears that the EU has found the events of last year to interesting as well. It seems that regulators (in Europe, at least) are not yet convinced that the "old Microsoft" has truly given way to the kinder, gentler "Microsoft." Or, at least that they are not yet willing to take that transition for granted.
I particularly applaud this action, because the credibility and integrity of the standard setting system has been called into serious question by the events of the last year. Whichever way the final results come out, the formal standards system will benefit from the fact that regulators were willing to get to the bottom of things when the trust of the public in standard setting was increasingly placed at risk.
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