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Tuesday, January 15, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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EU again targets Microsoft for antitrust investigations

The Associated Press

BRUSSELS, Belgium — European Union regulators said Monday they were again investigating Microsoft, this time over whether it abused its market position by squeezing out competing Internet browsers and software rivals dependent on Microsoft programs.

The European Commission opened two formal inquiries, the first move against Microsoft since a court four months ago backed the EU in a long legal battle over Microsoft's actions in using its Windows operating system to elbow into new software markets.

Microsoft said it would cooperate fully with the investigation and provide any 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," it said in a statement.

EU spokesman Jonathan Todd said he could not say how long it would take regulators to decide whether they would file formal charges against the company, noting that usually depended on "how complicated the issues are and the level of cooperation that we receive from the company under investigation."

Although regulators did not specifically name Microsoft's latest operating system, Vista, they will look at some of its features such as desktop search.

The EU is also wading into a row between Microsoft and open-source developers backed by International Business Machines by looking into Office Open XML, Microsoft's open format for archived documents.

The first new inquiry — triggered by a complaint from Norway's Opera Software — will look at whether Microsoft illegally gives away its Internet Explorer browser with Windows.

Opera had called on the EU to strip Internet Explorer from Windows or make Microsoft carry alternative browsers.

The investigation will check if "new proprietary technologies" held other browsers back by not following open Internet standards.

Regulators said they had also received allegations Microsoft had illegally packaged desktop search and Windows Live to its operating system.

The second investigation will examine whether Microsoft withheld information from companies that wanted to make products compatible with its software, including Office word processing, spreadsheet and office-management tools, some server products and Microsoft's push into the Internet under the name of the .NET framework.

Since Microsoft supplies the software to the vast majority of home and office computers, rivals complain that refusal to give them interoperability information shuts the door on a huge potential market.

The EU said it was acting on a complaint from the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS) — a group representing IBM, Nokia, Sun Microsystems, RealNetworks and Oracle — that has asked regulators to prevent Vista using Microsoft's existing monopoly power to move into the new Internet market.

"It is regrettable that despite the judgment of September 2007, Microsoft continues to use its desktop monopolies to restrict competition. That's what the ECIS and Opera complaints are about," ECIS spokesman and legal counsel Thomas Vinje said.

The EU said it will also look at whether Office Open XML — used by governments and large corporations to store older documents — "is sufficiently interoperable with competitors' products."

Microsoft said it developed the format to offer richer software than the nonproprietary OpenDocument Format created by open-source developers and used by IBM.

The open-source community claims Microsoft is trying to supplant a possible rival in OpenDocument Format and stem the potential threat of open-source software eating into its market share.

The European Union is building on its March 2004 decision that found Microsoft had violated EU antitrust rules by trying to damage rivals for server and media player software.

It told Microsoft to offer a version of Windows without the Media Player software, to share communications code with rivals and to pay a record $613 million fine.

Microsoft delayed obeying the order, launching an appeal to the European Court of Justice that it lost Sept. 17.

Microsoft then dropped further appeals and promised to abide by the September court ruling, but the EU's antitrust chief, Neelie Kroes, warned that a precedent had been set for future behavior in other areas.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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