EU to test Microsoft remedy in possible antitrust deal

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Microsoft has improved its offer to give users in Europe the chance to choose other Web browsers, EU antitrust regulators said on Wednesday and asked rivals to comment on the proposal.

A man passes by the Microsoft booth at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Telecom World 2009 exhibition in Geneva October 5, 2009. REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud

The amended offer could end the U.S. software giant’s decade-long dispute with the European Commission over charges it infringed EU antitrust rules that has to date landed the company with a total 1.68 billion euros ($2.47 billion) in fines.

“The Commission’s preliminary view is that Microsoft’s commitments would indeed address our competition concerns,” Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes told a news conference.

“The important thing is that the user would have a meaningful choice between Internet Explorer and its competitors,” she said, adding she hope to issue a decision making the commitments legally binding before the end of the year when her mandate ends.

Rivals, computer makers and other interested parties will have until November 7 to comment on Microsoft’s offer.

The commitments, if accepted by the Commission, will be valid for five years in the 27-country EU, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.


Microsoft welcomed the EU move. By early afternoon in New York Microsoft shares were down 0.2 percent at $25.06.

“For Microsoft, today’s decision is a significant step toward closing a decade-long chapter of competition law concerns in Europe,” the company said in a statement.

Norwegian browser market player Opera, whose 2007 complaint on Microsoft’s tying of its Internet Explorer browser to its Windows operating system had triggered the Commission’s probe, said the proposals needed tweaking.

“The proposal announced today will not effectively remedy the abuse. But it can be made effective with modest changes,” Opera’s chief technology officer Hakon Wium Lie said in a statement.

Google said it would review the proposal.

Under the offer, users will get a first screen explaining what browsers are, with ‘tell me more’ buttons detailing the different options. The Commission can review the remedy after two years.

The EU executive said it also welcomed Microsoft’s improvements in the field of interoperability which the firm will publish on its website as a public undertaking.

This followed a probe last year by the Commission on a complaint by industry body ECIS alleging that Microsoft had refused to disclose information that would allow third parties to design programmes compatible with its products.

ECIS, whose members include IBM, Nokia, Oracle Corp, Sun Microsystems and Opera, said the settlement fails to tackle many issues.

“ECIS notes that the settlement does not appear to deal with the inadequacies of Microsoft’s standards of compliance, unfair pricing practices or other concerns related to patent abuse or standards manipulation,” it said in a statement.

Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan in London and Diane Bartz in Washington, editing by Dale Hudson