EU launches new probes against Microsoft

BRUSSELS Mon Jan 14, 2008 1:33pm EST

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates speaks to shareholders at the company's annual meeting in Seattle, Washington, November 13, 2007. The European Commission opened a new antitrust probe against Microsoft on Monday into whether it unfairly tied its Web browser to the Windows operating system and made it harder for rival software to work with Windows. REUTERS/Robert Sorbo

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates speaks to shareholders at the company's annual meeting in Seattle, Washington, November 13, 2007. The European Commission opened a new antitrust probe against Microsoft on Monday into whether it unfairly tied its Web browser to the Windows operating system and made it harder for rival software to work with Windows.

Credit: Reuters/Robert Sorbo

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission, fresh from a major court victory over Microsoft, launched new antitrust investigations into the software giant on Monday, on suspicion it abused its market dominance.

Brussels will see whether Microsoft broke competition rules to help its Web browser and its Office and Outlook products, after complaints from Norwegian Web browser company Opera and a coalition of technology firms including IBM.

The move goes to the heart of the company's lucrative near-monopoly over personal computer operating systems, word processing, spreadsheets and office collaboration software.

The Commission is asking if Microsoft used the same tactics to hamper rivals that the European Union's second-highest court found illegal in September, in the culmination of a 6-year antitrust investigation.

The Commission, Europe's top competition regulator, made no new charges against Microsoft but said it "will further investigate the case as a matter of priority."

Microsoft said it would cooperate fully. "We are committed to ensuring that Microsoft is in full compliance with European law and court obligations," it said in a statement.

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The technology coalition, the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), wants rival word processors such as Open Office to run smoothly with Office, so documents can be exchanged across formats without losing any data.

"If the Commission cracks down, it opens up both Office and the Windows operating system monopolies to real competition," said Thomas Vinje, a lawyer for ECIS. It would also mean companies could use Linux computers that ran Office rivals, he added.

ECIS also wants Microsoft to provide data so the e-mail program Outlook and the Exchange Server which works with it can run smoothly with rival products. For now, users must rely on Outlook and Exchange to collaborate on such things as organizing meetings.

Finally, ECIS wants to ensure Internet applications from Google and other companies, so-called "cloud computing", will continue to work on any operating system.

Opera says Microsoft ensures rival Web browsers are not fully compatible with its Internet Explorer, and argues the U.S. firm should follow Internet standards which Microsoft itself helped develop. It also argues Microsoft has tied its Internet Explorer Web browser to Windows.

U.S. courts have found that Microsoft used illegal tactics to shut out rival Web browsers but Internet Explorer has remained a part of Windows.

Opera's complaint is based on the Commission's landmark 2004 ruling, upheld by the EU court last year, that Microsoft illegally tied audiovisual software to Windows. The court also found Microsoft failed to provide information needed for server software used by office workers for printing and signing on.

Microsoft has paid more than 778 million euros ($1.16 billion) in EU fines and may face more.

(Editing by Quentin Webb)

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