Perhaps the next time Brad Smith heads to Brussels, it will be for a vacation.
After years of wrangling with Microsoft, the European Commission announced an accord with the software giant Wednesday on several fronts that seems poised to put an end to its antitrust concerns with Redmond.
In the wake of the announcement, I spoke to Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, about the decision, what it means for the future of Windows, and whether the company sees its spot on the antitrust hot seat now being taken up by other companies, including Google.
Here's an edited transcript of our conversation:
Q: Is this really it as far as Europe is concerned?
Smith: This is definitely a major milestone for Microsoft. Today's announcement reflects a broad set of agreements that really address a wide array of issues. At the same time, we obviously need to keep our eye on the ball. Antitrust issues will continue to be important for us, just as they are going to continue to be important for a number of other leaders in our industry. We're going to have to do an excellent job implementing these agreement. We are going to have to do an excellent job addressing any new issues that arise in the future. Having said all that, I also think it is fair to say, as Commissioner [Neelie] Kroes did when she spoke in Brussels, this does represent the closing of one chapter and gives us the opportunity to open a new chapter. We're definitely enthused about that opportunity and we're committed to ensuring the next chapter is a positive and constructive one.
One of the things that Steve Ballmer talks a lot about in terms of antitrust issues is getting legal clarity on what one can and can't do. Do you feel like you now have that understanding with the EU?
Smith: I think this gives us a great deal more clarity. I think it gives the industry as a whole more clarity. It's perhaps most helpful in the area of interoperability because it really implements a new framework. It applies to a broad array of Microsoft products--Windows, Windows Server, Exchange, SharePoint--and for all of these products it has certain principles that we have to adhere to. It addresses the way we implement file formats.
At the same time, no advance on any single day can ever answer all questions for all companies for all time.
Essentially the EU has said through its very objections that you can't put a media player in Windows and you can't put a browser in Windows. What do you feel Microsoft can include in future versions?
Smith: There are two things to think about. First is what gets included in Windows, and second, what's the right way to address something that is included.
Our basic approach is to include in Windows, software that has APIs (application programming interfaces) that will be beneficial for other applications to call on and use. The browser is definitely an example of that. It's quite probably even more important in that role today than it was, say, when the browser issues first arose in the 1990s. The media player plays a similar role in terms of some broad APIs that are used by a wide variety of other applications.
There are other things that we have put in Windows in the past that don't necessarily involve the same role. A good example of that is Windows Live Messenger. We had Windows Messenger in Windows XP. It's not in Windows Vista or Windows 7 We're trying to make thoughtful decisions about what is included.
Then the second question that arises is how do things get included. How do we document APIs that our browser is using so that other browsers can use them as well? That's part of the U.S. consent decree.
How do we ensure that [computer makers] have flexibility to offer competing choices? How do we ensure that consumers are aware of competing choices and can use them if they wish. That latter part is an area where different governments have chosen different approaches at different times. The U.S. Department of Justice chose one approach in its consent decree. The Korean Fair Trade Commission chose a second approach. The European Commission in the media player case in 2004 chose a third approach. Today's announcement on the browser reflects the European Commission choosing a fourth approach.
Some people have the opinion that as a result of these different antitrust issues, Microsoft really finds itself with one hand tied behind its back as it competes in the battles of today. Do you believe Microsoft in the current antitrust environment competes on an even footing with some of the other Internet giants?
Smith: I do believe it is very important for all technology leaders in our industry to follow the same laws and obey the same rules. The rules don't necessarily apply in the same way when a company has a small market share as it does when a company has a large market share. But there are a number of companies that have large market shares for very important products. We've taken a number of steps to get into line with new legal rules in this field. The law has evolved and we've needed to evolve to address these new obligations.
We do believe our competitors need to play by the same rules. They've often been at the forefront of asking regulators to evolve the law in new directions. Now that the regulators have done so, we believe they need to pay attention as well.
Do you anticipate a period of time over the next few years where Microsoft is more likely to be the subject of antitrust inquiries or the company on the other side of the table for a change?
Smith: I think that we have addressed a very wide array of issues. Perhaps, in part because we were the first company to have to go through these inquiries, at least since the dawn of the PC era. We've probably had to go farther and sooner than other companies have had to do. We're now in an era where a different company seems to be in the headlines for competition law issues, if not every day, at least every month.
I think that what we are going to see in the next decade is this field of law being applied to a wide number of technology leaders that have high market share. We're going to see that, not only in Washington and Brussels, but we're likely to see that in more countries around the world simply because the global economy has evolved.
Have you expressed concerns specifically to Europe or Washington, D.C., about some of Google's behaviors?
Smith: We were very transparent last year when Google entered into its agreement with Yahoo. We felt that that was an illegal agreement that Google had entered into for the sole purpose of preventing Microsoft from becoming a more successful competitor, together with Yahoo, in the search space.
It was only when the Department of Justice informed the parties that it was on the verge of filing suit that Google decided to drop that agreement. We have not been shy about raising concerns when we have them.
It was only a couple hours after you guys settled with Brussels that we heard from D.C. with regards to Intel. When you initially heard that the FTC was filing suit against Intel, did you have feelings of empathy toward what their lawyers are going through, or what were your initial reactions?
Smith: I obviously know from a lot of firsthand experience the challenges that arise when a company needs to address these kinds of issues. Our road was a long one and it had its share of difficult moments. Antitrust issues are never easy for company to address.
This isn't a case where Microsoft has taken a public stance or even voiced to the regulators a position, is it?
Smith: We have not taken any public or nonpublic positions on the issues.
Are you guys looking to reach an agreement with Plurk? You guys said that you used code you shouldn't have? I'm curious if you are trying to negotiate some sort of settlement with them?
Smith: I wouldn't want to say anything that goes beyond the public statement we put out.
It does seem when I look at any particular issue with regards to the Internet, Microsoft tends to have a much more cautious approach. It seems like it is tough to compete when others are bundling more than you.
Smith: I think our goal is to be thoughtful but also fast-moving. As we look at the Internet today, it is increasingly a regulated space. That wasn't the case a decade ago. I think a thoughtful company needs to really think through how its products and services are going to comply with the regulations that are going to be enforced or likely to be applied in many different countries around the world. At the same time, one cannot let that get in the way of moving forward quickly. I think it's striking that balance that is really quite important. One needs to move fast. One shouldn't move faster than speed of thought and yet one shouldn't be so thoughtful that one simply analyzes problems and fails to solve them.
Do you think Microsoft has erred a little too much on side of caution in recent years?
Smith: I don't know that we've erred too much on the side of caution, but I do think it's extremely important we move quickly. This is a very dynamic space it is certain to remain a very dynamic space. Customers are interested in deploying new products and services, whether it is on the client, on the server, or on the cloud. The real key is to develop the capability to be both thoughtful and fast moving.