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EU Dogs Microsoft, But To What End?

Europe's competition authorities have finally won their long-fought legal victory over Microsoft. Problem is, their constituents -- outside the continent's intellectual salons -- could hardly care less.

Europe's competition authorities have finally won their long-fought legal victory over Microsoft. Problem is, their constituents -- outside the continent's intellectual salons -- could hardly care less.Chalk up another one for the bureaucrats, who care more about slowing down an offshore-based commercial juggernaut than protecting buyers, the constituency for which antitrust law was supposedly created. Whether you're a senior business technology executive responsible for buying and maintaining thousands of desktops or just a consumer, why get behind antitrust action if it doesn't make a lick of difference to you?

In upholding a 2004 European Commission antitrust ruling against Microsoft, Europe's second highest court said last week that the company is still liable for nearly $1 billion in fines, must continue to offer in Europe a version of Windows without Windows Media Player, and must make its interoperability tools available to competitors on a "fair" basis. The EC's original ruling followed a five-year antitrust investigation initiated by Sun Microsystems, the same rival that helped kick start antitrust action against Microsoft in the United States.

At the EC's behest, Microsoft already offers in Europe a version of Windows without Media Player, and as my colleague Paul McDougall reports, customers have responded with a resounding "not interested." No PC maker has chosen to license the special Windows XP N and Windows Vista N editions, and those special editions sold separately "sit on the shelf," Microsoft deputy general counsel David Heiner told the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in March. At least in the States, as a result of Microsoft's earlier deal with the U.S. Justice Department, "new Windows PCs come loaded up with software from Microsoft's competitors," Heiner stressed, but in Europe "costs have been imposed, but there is little apparent benefit for anyone."

To add insult to injury, another European group that professes to speak for the Windows-pained masses has come forward with another recommendation aimed at hamstringing Microsoft. The Globalisation Institute, a Brussels-based think tank, issued a paper last week calling for the sale in the European Union of PCs without pre-bundled operating systems -- that is, sans Windows. "There is no reason why there should not be diversity in operating systems," says the paper, suggesting that making customers find their own operating systems is somehow liberating. While the think tank's navel gazers are at it, why don't they recommend that PC manufacturers remove the processor as well, so that Europeans can revel in having the choice of buying a completely brain-dead hunk of hardware?

If European buyers really want PCs with alternative operating systems, PC makers will be happy to supply them. Dell, for one, loads Ubuntu Linux on machines for sale in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, for consumers as well as business customers. Computer shoppers in Europe can always buy Macs from a revitalized Apple, complete with proprietary OS. For those who want PCs wiped of the operating system, there are white box outlets.

Word has it that the high court ruling may embolden EU competition commissioner Neelie Kroes to seek further sanctions against Microsoft in Europe. After the ruling, Kroes said she wants to see Windows lose "significant" market share there. To what end? Not to help buyers, it seems.

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