EU stumbles on buying Microsoft alternatives

BRUSSELS Tue Jun 17, 2008 6:54am EDT

Microsoft Corp Chairman Bill Gates speaks during a news conference in Tokyo May 7, 2008. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Microsoft Corp Chairman Bill Gates speaks during a news conference in Tokyo May 7, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Yuriko Nakao

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission, a thorn in Microsoft's (MSFT.O) side for its antitrust campaigns against the software giant, is falling short in its own internal attempt to promote more competition in the technology sector.

The European Union executive has so far not followed its own policy that it purchase office software and operating systems with open standards as well Microsoft products.

"For the moment we are working in a Microsoft environment," said Christos Ellinides, director of corporate IT solutions and services, who recommends software for the Commission.

Last week European Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes noted the Commission's pledge to buy open-standard software.

"This policy, adopted last year, needs to be implemented with vigor," Neelie Kroes told an audience.

The policy requires all future procurement should promote software using "open, well-documented standards" that interoperates freely with other software, essentially in desktop and laptop machines. By using open-standard software, the Commission would signal it is practicing what it preaches in terms of injecting more competition into computing.

Ellinides said in an interview arranged by a spokeswoman for Commissioner Siim Kallas, who oversees procurement, that studies showed the costs of moving to open source outweighed the benefits. He said it may be time for a new study.

"There is a decision that we will explore the possibility of initiating this study on an institutional basis," he said.

He said the Commission can already read and send data in open formats, but a lawyer for open-standards groups disagreed.

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"The Commission should be more thorough in following their own policies. I have clients who have complained that the Commission mandates using (Microsoft) Excel spreadsheets in some funding projects," said Carlo Piana, based in Milan.

The city of Munich has dumped Microsoft for open-standards desktops and says the transition is going well so far, avoiding being locked in to Microsoft or anyone else.

Ellinides said he plans to talk with Munich representatives this week. Munich Mayor Christian Ude appeared with Kroes when she made her call for open standards. "There is no doubt that open standards strengthen competition," he said.

Kroes and her predecessor, Mario Monti, led the fight to enforce EU antitrust rules against Microsoft, with fines of 1.68 billion euros ($2.58 billion) levied so far.

A key to Microsoft's power is that Office products like Word will not read documents produced in other programs unless special software is added or formatting information is stripped.

Microsoft said it will change that next year. The Commission says other promises have not been kept and it will wait and see.

The Commission last year contracted to pay Microsoft about 4.5 million euros annually until 2011 to provide its 30,000 desktop users with software, a spokesman said.

Ellinides said he would need to talk to the European Parliament, the European Investment Bank, the Court of Auditors and the Court of Justice before considering any changes.

"We like to make sure that economies of scale are taken into account, as opposed to everyone doing their own thing," he said.

(Editing by Quentin Bryar)

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