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More EC Troubles for Microsoft? - InternetNews.
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More EC Troubles for Microsoft?

If Microsoft thought settling with European antitrust regulators over earlier anti-competitive practices would get it off the hot seat, it certainly hasn't turned out that way.

Last month, the European Commission (EC) announced two new probes into Microsoft's actions in areas ranging from bundling Internet Explorer with Windows to whether its Office Open XML (OOXML) formats are "sufficiently interoperable with competitors' products."

That came on the heels of a major European court verdict in September affirming the EC's 2004 decision that Microsoft abused its dominance to illegally reinforce its position vis-à-vis competitors in European markets.

Now the EC is reportedly examining whether Microsoft's highly publicized shenanigans in promoting its efforts to get OOXML adopted as a standard for document interchange in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) further violated European antitrust laws, according to a report Friday in the Wall Street Journal.

The company has been accused of packing several nations' ISO committees with pro-Microsoft delegates prior to a crucial vote on OOXML in early September—a vote that ultimately came out against its adoption as a standard.

Indeed, the WSJ report cites what occurred with the Italian delegation as a particularly egregious example, stating that the group grew from a half dozen members to 85 in the run up to last summer's balloting.

According to the report, the EC is examining whether Microsoft's activities—including pressuring countries to vote for OOXML—constituted "undue stifling of competition," and thus violated European antitrust laws.

Officials for the EC were not available to comment, but the WSJ stated that the EC declined to comment for its story.

For its part, Microsoft released what has recently become its standard boilerplate statement regarding this latest investigation.

"We will cooperate fully with the Commission’s investigation and provide any and all information necessary. We are committed to ensuring that Microsoft is in full compliance with European law and our obligations as established by the European Court of First Instance in its September 2007 ruling," a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement e-mailed to InternetNews.com.

Meanwhile, the ISO committee in charge of the standards process is preparing to hold a weeklong "ballot resolution meeting" in Geneva at the end of February.

That meeting is being held to determine if Ecma International, the group shepherding OOXML through the ISO process, has addressed all of the technical objections that were raised during the voting.

Following that meeting, participating national committees have a month to reconsider and change their earlier votes—something Microsoft fervently hopes will change OOXML's prospects.

In the wake of Friday's reports, advocates for the existing ISO standard for Office file formats, dubbed OpenDocument Format or ODF, hailed the EC's decision to look deeper into Microsoft's behavior.

"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," Andrew Updegrove, a vociferous opponent of OOXML and a member of the Linux Foundation's board of directors, said in a statement e-mailed to InternetNews.com.

"Whichever way the final results come out, that system will benefit from the fact that regulators were willing to get to the bottom of things when the trust of the public in standards was increasingly at risk," Updegrove added.

However, some analysts found themselves questioning what legal concepts might lie behind the reported investigation.

"It's clear that Microsoft engaged in sort of a court packing plan to give OOXML a better shot at ISO standardization, but how that translates into a legal theory [of anti-competitive behavior] I don't know," Rob Helm, director of research at analysis firm Directions on Microsoft, told InternetNews.com.

Peter O'Kelly, research director at analysis firm Burton Group, and co-author of an extremely controversial OOXML report derided by ODF supporters who claim the firm is in Microsoft's pocket, agreed with Helm.

"My take is that Microsoft and IBM both did things [in the ISO process] that some might say was bad etiquette and it slowed the process. But I don't think that's illegal," O'Kelly told InternetNews.com.