Will Windows ‘Live’ Suit EU?

Microsoft, accused and convicted of monopolistic abuse practices in the U.S. and European Union, has taken the ultimate step of unbundling Windows from Windows.

Windows Live and Office Live, announced on Tuesday, are Web-based services that offer some of the functionality of the desktop products. You don’t need Windows to use them.

In case the audience at the press conference didn’t grok the import of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates’ announcement of the offerings, CTO Ray Ozzie spelled it out: “Let me reiterate,” he said. “These are wholly separate from Windows. You can use Windows Live with or without Windows.”

It’s a big step away from its bundling strategy.

Bundling software was what got Microsoft in trouble with the U.S. Department of Justice and the European Union. Redmond settled with the DoJ in 2001.

In March 2004, the EU Competition Commission ruled that Microsoft’s bundling of Windows Media Player with the Internet Explorer browser stifled competition from other media players. It also said its desktop software had an unfair advantage due to its tight integration with Windows server software. Microsoft appealed the ruling in June 2004; the appeal could take up to five years.

Since then, Longhorn, Microsoft’s next-generation OS, has gone from rumor to reality in the form of a beta version of the product, now Korea — the question on a lot of minds at yesterday’s announcement was, “What about Vista?”

Vista promises a new level of integration with Windows server products, as well as with MSN. Since Longhorn is being built from the ground up, Microsoft might have argued that the EU commission’s 2004 ruling didn’t cover it. Instead, Redmond chose a less divisive strategy.

Not only will it offer free or subscription-based access to Windows and Office via any browser, Microsoft also will allow third parties to build on the same interfaces that Windows Live uses.

“Everything that Windows Live connects to in Windows is done through published interfaces,” Gates said. “There will be competition. People will take those interfaces and build services to take advantage of them. Part of our responsibility is that we make that information available and give people those opportunities.”

Providing this access is similar to what the EU ordered Microsoft to do with its server protocols: make them openly available so that others could build competitive products.

The interfaces will include AJAX , RSS , Web services, client APIs , managed code and native code. Services will connect to non-Microsoft devices, including Macintosh computers and devices and non-Windows mobile phones.

Said Ozzie, “We’re embracing an architectural model that enables people to plug arbitrary services into our user experience, because that’s what users want.” The APIs will allow mash-ups combining Microsoft services with those of others. “We do not believe that we have the ability to conceptualize all the different things that people would like,” Ozzie said.

This spaghetti-against-the-wall approach has been used successfully by eBay , Amazon.com , Yahoo and Google, all of which provide open application programming interfaces (APIs) that let anyone build applications and services that rely on Web services and data they provide.

This new direction, which Microsoft calls “live software,” will enable Redmond to compete with its Internet-native rivals for the hearts and minds of developers at startups who just might come up with an offering as popular as, say, the Flickr photo-sharing service that was later snapped up by Yahoo.

And it also doesn’t hurt that Windows Live might soothe the souls of antitrust regulators everywhere.

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