US Companies Turn to EU with Microsoft Complaints

Denied justice in the United States, a group of Microsoft competitors has turned to the European Union (EU), asking EU regulators to break up the software giant because of its continued anticompetitive practices. However, this recent development is unlikely to affect the EU's current case against Microsoft, which is coming to a close.

The Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), which represents more than 30 high-tech companies, says that Microsoft has learned nothing from its antitrust troubles in the United States and continues to leverage its Windows monopoly in emerging markets such as smart cell phones. At the end of January, the CCIA submitted a 206-page complaint to the European Commission, which handles antitrust cases in Europe, and a Commission spokesperson said that its competition department will review the document. However, if the Commission decides to take the case, it will be a new investigation, not part of the existing Microsoft investigation.

The complaint alleges that Microsoft leveraged its Windows monopoly to enter other markets, crushed competition in media players and other software, and designed features in Windows XP to harm competitors. The complaint mentions software--such as Microsoft Outlook Express, Windows Movie Maker, and Windows Media Player (WMP)--that Microsoft bundles with its OSs.

Microsoft has said little about the complaint, although it noted that US courts appear to have already addressed most of the concerns the complaint raises. "It is up to the Commission to decide what issues are relevant to its probe," a Microsoft spokesperson said yesterday. "We have always said we are eager to work with the commission to find a positive solution to the issues." However, the CCIA says that its complaints are more recent and broad than anything the US antitrust case covered, suggesting that the company has done little to curb its anticompetitive behavior despite the guilty verdict.

The CCIA has some compelling arguments. Thomas Vinje, a legal adviser to the group, told "The New York Times" this week that Microsoft competes in tactical markets only long enough to kill off competition and stifle innovation. "Look at Microsoft Internet Explorer," he said. "It is the same now as it was 5 years ago. Microsoft doesn't need to innovate because there is no serious competitor to \[Internet Explorer\] any more." Meanwhile, he notes, Microsoft has thrown its weight behind efforts in up-and-coming markets such as media players and movie editing, using the same OS bundling tactics that got the company in antitrust trouble with various governments worldwide.

One problem that faces the CCIA, however, is timing. If the companies the alliance represents think the US court system is slow, they're in for a shock in Europe. The EU launched its current Microsoft investigation 5 years ago, and it's moved at a snail's pace ever since. Even if the Commission picks up this new case, several years could pass before the case is resolved, and by that time Microsoft will have moved on to new markets and opportunities.

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