Microsoft asks for oral hearing in latest EU antitrust case

The software giant submitted its written response to charges that it illegally favors Internet Explorer over rivals

Microsoft has asked the European Commission for an oral hearing with the regulator in order to defend itself against antitrust charges that it is illegally tying its Internet browser to the Windows operating system, a Commission spokesman said Wednesday.

The software giant made its request as it submitted a written response to the charges, which were issued in January. The hearing will take place in the coming weeks but no date has yet been set, Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd said in a telephone interview.

Interested third parties will be invited to attend the hearing and make their points too. They include Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser; Google; as well as IBM, Oracle, Red Hat and other software firms represented by the trade group the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS).

These third parties are on the side of the Commission. Others including the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), a trade group representing small and medium-size IT firms, will support Microsoft.

"We are studying Microsoft's response carefully," Todd said, but declined to reveal any details in it.

The Commission accused Microsoft of distorting fair competition in the browser market by tying its Internet Explorer (IE) browser to Windows.

This, the regulator said, gives IE an advantage over rival browsers including Firefox, the Norwegian browser Opera and Google's own rival, called Chrome.

Opera sparked the antitrust probe by complaining to the Commission about Microsoft's tactics.

The case echoes a previous legal challenge to Microsoft in Europe. In 2004 the Commission ruled that tying Media Player, software that plays video and music tracks, into Windows was illegal for the same reason bundling IE is.

It ordered Microsoft to launch a second version of Windows that had the media player stripped out. However, this remedy is widely seen as being useless.

This time the Commission is considering forcing Microsoft to include rival browsers inside Windows. The idea would be to give users a genuine choice between browsers. This so-called 'must carry' remedy is broadly supported by the rival browser makers. However, some are worried about the precise wording.

"If the Commission isn't careful it could replace a harmful monopoly in the browser market with an equally harmful duopoly involving Google's Chrome and Microsoft's IE," said one person following the case closely, who asked not to be named.

For PCs installed on people's office computers, it sometimes won't be possible to give users a full choice because IT departments in firms often restrict employees' choices of software. The person explained that in such cases the Commission might ask computer makers to choose an alternative browser to IE.

"If this happened Google would be in a position to buy its way into Windows. There is no one else who could come close to its purchasing power," the person said.

"This would be great news for OEMs, but it would do little to restore fair competition to the market," he added.

After conducting the hearing the Commission will begin drafting its final ruling on the antitrust case. The antitrust officials will seek opinions on their ruling from other departments in the Commission, and then from the national competition regulators.

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Paul Meller

IDG News Service
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