"And next time, don't forget to eat your vegetables--or else!"
The Academy Awards show is over and done with, but European Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes is making a strong bid to win an Oscar as "Best Supporting Scold."
The EU's regulatory czar has socked Microsoft with an 899 million euro ($1.35 billion) fine for failing to comply with a March 2004 antitrust ruling and for charging "unreasonable" prices to rivals seeking documentation for workgroup servers. In the statement from the European Union, Kroes singled out Microsoft as the first company in the last half-century of EU regulation fined for failing to comply with an antitrust mandate:
"I hope that today's Decision closes a dark chapter in Microsoft's record of non-compliance with the Commission's March 2004 Decision and that the principles confirmed by the Court of First Instance ruling of September 2007 will govern Microsoft's future conduct."
Steve Ballmer's not looking to reprise the role of industry bully. Remember the blowback after his "the hell with Janet Reno" yowl in the late 1990s? He will write the check and order his legions to move on.
There's not enough upside to fight Kroes over what, for Redmond at least, is essentially chump change. Besides, he's anxious to gain EU goodwill for Microsoft's pledge last week to open up its APIs and protocols. The idea was to foster the impression that Microsoft was trying to be more open and not impede rivals seeking to make their products more compatible.
And, of course, to get Kroes off its back.
The EU is within its rights to wield a big stick. Whether this really was necessary is another story. While U.S. regulators took a powder when the Bush team took over the Justice Department, European trustbusters remained aggressive and actually forced changes in Microsoft's behavior (or at least got Redmond's braintrust to sign off on paper).
But pouring salt on the wound--and that's what it is--doesn't change anything on the ground. Microsoft's already paid big fines, and so now it will pay another one. Kroes made her point for the cameras and guaranteed a boatload of press attention over the next 24 hours.