March 24, 2004 4:02 PM PST
EU slaps record fine on Microsoft
European Competition Commissioner Mario Monti ruled that Microsoft had failed to provide to rivals information that they needed to compete fairly in the market for server software and that the company has been offering Windows on the condition that it come bundled with Windows Media Player, stifling competition.
Microsoft now has 120 days to provide the information that rival server makers need to compete fairly, and it must continue to
In the EU's judgment, Microsoft must refrain from using any commercial, technological or contractual terms that would have the effect of "rendering the unbundled version of Windows less attractive or performing. In particular, it must not give PC manufacturers a discount conditional on their buying Windows together with the Windows Media player."
July 15, 1994
After a four-year antitrust probe, Microsoft signs a consent decree with the Justice Department, agreeing that its OS licenses will not contain conditions that apply to its other software. A similar agreement is also struck with the European Commission, giving it the right to monitor Microsoft's compliance for six-and-a-half years.
Oct. 20, 1997
The DOJ files a petition, alleging the software maker violated the 1994 agreement by bundling Internet Explorer in Windows 95 and preventing computer makers from removing IE's functionality from the operating system. Microsoft confirms that the European Commission has also begun a probe into a complaint about its licensing practices.
The European Commission expands its investigation of Microsoft, after Sun Microsystems complains that its rival would not disclose technical interfaces to Windows NT. In 2002, the commission further widens its Microsoft investigation to look at how streaming media technology has been integrated into Windows.
May 18, 1998
A group of state attorneys general and the DOJ file their historic antitrust cases against Microsoft. Both seek permanent injunctions against Microsoft's inclusion of its browser software in Windows. A federal judge later consolidates the cases.
Oct. 19, 1998
The DOJ and 19 states square off in court with Microsoft, as the landmark antitrust trial begins. The DOJ alleges Microsoft squashed Netscape's market-leading browser, in part through its Windows monopoly and exclusive contracts that forced computer makers to favor IE.
April 3, 2000
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson issues a ruling. He determines that "Microsoft maintained its monopoly power by anticompetitive means and attempted to monopolize the Web browser market."
June 7, 2000
Jackson orders Microsoft broken into two separate companies--one for OSes, the other for applications. That judgment is suspended, pending an appeal.
June 28, 2001
A U.S. Court of Appeals throws out the order to break up Microsoft. But it also rules Microsoft used its monopoly powers to retain its OS monopoly and asks the lower court to revisit the issue of Microsoft tying its products, such as the browser, to its OS.
Sept. 6, 2001
The DOJ, now under the Bush administration, says it will drop its efforts to break Microsoft in two and halt its pursuit of the claim that Microsoft illegally integrated its browser with Windows 95 and 98.
Nov. 2, 2001
Microsoft, the DOJ and nine states reach a settlement under which Microsoft must share information on its OS to let rivals better develop interoperable software. Nine other states and the District of Columbia consider pursuing their lawsuits separately.
Nov. 1, 2002
A U.S. District Court judge approves the proposed settlement. Court sanctions are set to last five years.
Nov. 29, 2002
Massachusetts says it will contest the federal settlement.
Aug. 6, 2003
European antitrust regulators announce a preliminary decision to require Microsoft to provide greater technical information to its server competitors and to reduce the ties between its OS and Media Player.
March 18, 2004
Settlement talks between the European Commission and Microsoft collapse.
"Of course, I'm confident we have produced a decision that will stand before any appeal," Monti said.
"As for future deterrent, I believe there may be an indirect aspect...to the extent that the decision by the European Commission may be used in the context of private actions against the company," he said. The remedies and the legal precedent were more important than the level of the fine, he added.
Microsoft reiterated its plan to appeal the decision. "We will go forward and seek legal review of this decision in the European Court of First Instance," Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel, said in a conference call, referring to the European Union's second highest court.
Long road ahead
He said the company would request that implementation of some parts of the commission's decision be suspended--specifically the EU's demand that the software giant produce a second version of the Windows operating system without the Windows Media Player.
"We will ask for that and probably other parts of the remedies to be suspended," he said. He added that he expected "four or five years" of litigation ahead.
Microsoft attempted to settle the case, but talks ended last week after both sides failed to reach an agreement on how to govern Microsoft's future business practices. Microsoft had offered to modify Windows to place copies of competing media player software on PC hard drives during the installation, instead of selling a version of Windows without Media Player, as the EU ultimately ordered the company to do.
Smith played down the impact of the EU decision on the next major update of Microsoft's flagship operating system, which is code-named Longhorn.
"We have had our lawyers working with the product development teams...Based on the work that we have done so far...it is our sense that the kinds of innovations that we have planned for Longhorn are innovations that pass muster under EU law as well as the law elsewhere in the world," he added.
Despite the intense media scrutiny of the five-year investigation, when the verdict came it was with more of a whimper than a bang. On Tuesday, European Commission representatives were warning that they would "need a bigger room" to accommodate all the world's press for Monti's statement. But it was very much business as usual Wednesday at the commission's headquarters in Brussels. There were even a few empty seats at the press conference.
Some observers welcomed the ruling, saying it would provide clarity in a complex market.
"One benefit of the case going to court is that we will get a lot more information, so both Microsoft and others will know what sorts of activities are illegal in Europe," said Nic Francis, a consultant with Europe Economics, a London-based consultancy.
Others expressed surprise at the severity of the fine in a case that turns on some tricky legal arguments.
"This is not a classic parallel trade infringement or cartel case--it's unusual. On the server issue, there's compulsory licensing to a competitor of intellectual property. Generally these cases are borderline," said Marc Hansen, an attorney with Latham & Watkins in Brussels. "On the Media Player, it's a really novel bundling issue, and that is one of the more unresolved areas of law. So suddenly there's a 497 million euro fine for something that no one really knew was illegal?"
Reaction across the industry
Industry organizations representing both sides of the case were quick to issue statements Wednesday morning.
The Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), a trade group representing Microsoft's rivals, praised the EU's actions. "The European Commission's decision today is another confirmation of Microsoft's anticompetitive and illegal business tactics," CCIA President Ed Black said in a statement.
Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, a pro-Microsoft group, denounced the ruling, saying it will lead to higher software prices for consumers. "The European Commission may be trying to punish Microsoft, but its proposals reserve their harshest effects for consumers and small technology companies. The message from today's decision is forget innovating, start litigating and if you fail in America, try Europe," Zuck said in a statement.
Even the U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement that was bitterly critical of the EU's approach, saying that its own settlement with Microsoft had already led to "substantial changes to Microsoft?s business practices." Forcing Microsoft to remove the Media Player from Windows threatened to distort competition, the agency said.
"Imposing antitrust liability on the basis of product enhancements and imposing ?code removal? remedies may produce unintended consequences," R. Hewitt Pate, the assistant attorney general for antitrust, said in the statement. "Sound antitrust policy must avoid chilling innovation and competition even by 'dominant' companies. A contrary approach risks protecting competitors, not competition, in ways that may ultimately harm innovation and the consumers that benefit from it."
Sun on Wednesday praised the EU's actions, but noted that Microsoft was able to stretch the process out for five years, boosting its market share in the workgroup server market from 20 percent to 70 percent.
"The result is pretty close to exactly what we were hoping to achieve, which is competition on the merits for workgroup servers," Sun vice president of legal affairs Lee Patch told CNET News.com. "We were not anticipating at the time that it would take this long to achieve this."
Although a negotiated settlement could have taken effect immediately, Patch said it was important to have a ruling that prevented Microsoft from making similar abuses in the future. Patch praised the EU decision for requiring Microsoft to keep its operating system open to rivals: "Microsoft's obligation for disclosure is one which must be updated for each new product release."
Novell, which lost out to Microsoft in the 1990s in the server operating system market and is now pursuing a strategy based on the Linux operating system, supported the European Union's actions.
"Novell believes that the commission's findings, decision and remedies will improve competition, stimulate innovation and benefit consumers of information technology services and solutions," Waltham, Mass.-based Novell said in a statement Wednesday.
"The Commission today unequivocally ruled that a central part of Microsoft's business model is illegal under clearly established principles of European law that are consistent with U.S. antitrust law," said RealNetworks deputy general counsel Dave Stewart. "We believe that that's good for consumers and competition."What comes next
The next legal step that Microsoft is likely to take is to apply for an annulment of the decision, which is a relatively long procedure that may take several years, involving two written submissions from Microsoft, two from the commission, and other submissions from competitors and supporters of Microsoft. This process would end with an oral hearing and a judgment.
Microsoft can also apply for interim measures, effectively requesting suspension of the measure on the grounds that it will cause irreparable damage. This process would take a few weeks.
"Where is the irreparable harm?" said an attorney, who formerly served as a high-ranking antitrust official with the European Commission. "It's not as if Microsoft has to withdraw any product from the market...Also, it will be difficult for Microsoft to argue that the matter is urgent because of Longhorn...which after all is still at least two years away."
Antitrust attorneys also note Microsoft may face a difficult time convincing the court to delay the implementation of Monti's ruling beyond the three months the regulator has outlined.
"Although a timing issue would be in less conflict with the commission's decision, Microsoft would still have make a powerful case to show that three months would not be sufficient," said another antitrust attorney, who also previously served in a senior post with the European Commission.
Monti's ruling on the specific question of the Windows Media Player and Microsoft's server software business raises the larger issue of future competition clashes with the commission. The legal issue here is whether it is possible to frame a ruling that will seem fair to Microsoft and also address the commission's concern that the company will not break competition rules in the future.
The commission ended its statement by saying that it "believes the remedies will bring the antitrust violations to an end, that they are proportionate, and that they establish clear principles for the future conduct of the company."
An independent trustee will be appointed to monitor compliance with the ruling, according to the statement, to see "that Microsoft's interface disclosures are complete and accurate, and that the two versions of Windows are equivalent in terms of performance."
Michael Parsons of ZDNet UK reported from London. Jo Best of Silicon.com reported from Brussels. News.com's Mike Ricciuti reported from Cambridge, Mass., and News.com's Dawn Kawamoto and Ina Fried reported from San Francisco.