The latest antitrust battle fought between Microsoft and the European Commission seems to be close to reaching a conclusion, with a ruling that the software giant has acted as an abusive monopolist expected this week. Barring a last-minute settlement, which looks extremely unlikely at the time of going to press given that talks had collapsed, news reports have suggested the Commission will slap a ban of anywhere up to $US1 billion on the company and order it to make fundamental changes to the way it sells software in Europe.
While that amount in itself is not to be sniffed at, the wider reaching ramifications of the ruling, for Microsoft in particular but also for dominant players in other markets, are potentially massive.
The Commission has made it quite clear that it intends to set a strong legal precedent for controlling anti-competitive behaviour and is setting some ground rules for the next time it feels justified in going after Microsoft. This might be sooner than you think because the Commission has already publicly stated that it will now turn its attention to complaints received about Windows XP.
Microsoft will no doubt fight tooth and nail against any allegations it sees as an attempt to weaken its grip on the market, but the expected negative ruling in Europe could soon see it fighting fires on several fronts if other parts of the world choose to follow the lead. Lawyers representing Microsoft have said in the past that any remedy imposed on its operations in Europe could be extended globally.
This, however, could depend on the rest of the world demanding similar action. Analysts have suggested Microsoft’s recent release of a version of Windows specifically aimed at the Thai market could be followed by another one designed for Europe and, if this is the plan, it will be interesting to see the reaction from other regions of the world. This form of patch management looks like a risky play as development costs will become astronomical if every corner of the world demands its own version of the platform.
Any change that may occur is likely to come at a slow pace. Governing bodies never do anything in a hurry and — as we have already seen with the announcement that the release date for Microsoft’s next-generation database, Yukon, has slipped again — what creates uproar in one part of the world barely causes a ripple in another region. The news is reported to have caused outrage in the US among SQL users but resellers and end-users locally have yet to kick up a stink. A local reaction might yet gather momentum if resellers get more complaints from customers. Only time will tell.
My point is this. Companies as big as Microsoft are bound to attract negative press, some of it is justified and some not, but the clear message coming out of Europe this week is the importance of voicing your concerns even if finding a remedy seems as likely as pushing a boulder up a mountain. Whatever the final outcome of the present Microsoft wrangle, influential bodies such as the European Commission don’t pluck their agendas out of thin air. The issues they tackle are the result of grassroots concerns that grow over time into more complicated debates that eventually need settling at the highest level. If something is having a negative impact on your business, ARN wants to know about it.