Microsoft and the EU

I've written a long commentary about this week's Microsoft and the European Union (EU) antitrust news (See the link below), but I want to discuss a few points related to the case that I feel are relevant to Windows IT Pro UPDATE readers. Several years ago, as Microsoft's US-based antitrust case wound through the courts, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of backing the US states and Department of Justice (DOJ) that were allied against the company and was convinced that breaking up Microsoft was the proper conclusion for the company and its customers.

I was wrong. If the intervening five years have showed us anything, it's that the Microsoft of today is dramatically less aggressive than was previously the case. Actually, Microsoft is an almost cowed company, afraid to flex its market muscle and all too eager to address whatever concerns US antitrust regulators raise (typically at the request of Microsoft's competitors). The list of ways in which Microsoft has asked "how high?" in response to a demand to jump from the US courts is alarming and best exemplified by Windows Vista, which Microsoft changed several times to meet the demands of others. In fact, one might argue that Vista is the first Microsoft OS that was partially designed by a committee of antitrust regulators from around the world, as the company also made a number of concessions to EU regulators during its development.

The EU news this week involves two main issues, product bundling (specifically of Windows Media Player--WMP-- in Windows) and server interoperability, specifically in the so-called workgroup server market. The WMP issue may seem the lesser of the two given the IT bent of this newsletter, but I'd argue that the EU's steps in requiring Microsoft to actually ship WMP-less versions of Windows in Europe has caused the company to rethink its overall bundling strategy. As a result, Vista today contains far fewer of the superfluous Windows Live products and services that Microsoft might have previously force fed to its customers. I consider that one a success for those who use and manage Windows-based systems.

As for server interoperability, one only has to look at the astonishing series of interoperability partnerships Microsoft has formed over the last year or so, with companies such as Sun Microsystems, Novell, Zend, Xandros, and many others, to witness the not-so-subtle changes in Microsoft's approach to competitors. It's unclear whether these partnerships would have arisen in a world that didn't include EU antitrust oversight. My guess is that it would have happened far less quickly if all, but it's clear that the results are positive for Microsoft, its partners, and, most importantly, you, its customers.

My contention here is simple: The server rooms and datacenters now and in the future are heterogeneous places, and by undertaking the hard work of ensuring that enough of these incompatible systems can work together harmoniously, Microsoft and its partners are saving you from some future headaches. Regardless of your stance on such topics as open source and Linux, proprietary versus free software, and the like, we're moving into a time when choosing the best solution for your needs will (hopefully) no longer include an argument about the tradeoffs of incompatibilities with existing systems. It's a heady if somewhat utopian worldview, I know.

In the end, I can't see any downside to the EU outcome for Microsoft as it ultimately benefits the company's customers. My only fear--currently unfounded, I should note--is that EU antitrust regulators may see this success as a starting point for future investigations into other, less-deserving American companies, which could needlessly throttle innovation and competition. I hope it doesn't come to that.

A Look at the EU Ruling Against Microsoft

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