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Being consistent

Posted by Richard Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Largely, we have spared you the ins and outs of the Microsoft case, not least because "everybody" is quite happy to have a go at Bill Gates and there was an element of shadenfraude watching the EU having a go at his corporate giant.

Setting aside the prejudice engendered by the sight of too many "blue screens", each one signifying that yet again that one of Mr Gates's products have crashed and burned (although XP has been a trouble-free gem), one has to side with Bill on this one.

As most readers will be aware, the EU commission is trying to extract a whacking €497 million fine from Microsoft for its supposed abuse of dominant market position, the latter having bundled its multi-media player with its best-selling Windows operating system, thus – supposedly – freezing out its rivals.

The latest twist in the saga is that Microsoft has just failed to convince the ECJ that it should suspend enforcement action pending an appeal against the fine and, in particular, the need to produce an alternative Windows system without the media player. Microsoft was also objecting to having to disclose source code to rivals, to enable them to improve the performance of their products when used with Windows.

According to Nicholas Economides, an economics professor at New York University, "This is a very serious setback for Microsoft. It's the first time that a court has told them what they can and can't include in Windows. It's like telling General Motors what features it should have in their cars."

Setback it maybe, but the charge – and the remedy is a crock. Like millions of others, I have Windows multimedia bundled on my software, but I do not use it and have access to a number of other systems that work as well if not better. But now, Microsoft is in the mad position of having to produce two versions of Windows, one with the multimedia system and the other without, both at the same price.

You can just imagine the consume reaction: "Oh yes, I'll have the one with less features for the same price," you can hear them saying. Yea, right.

And, in future, because of this ruling, Microsoft is no longer bundling new products into future versions of Windows, so a planned anti-virus programme is to be sold separately, at additional cost. That really does help the consumer. Yet, even then, it is finding a way round, by combining more products with its Office word processing and e-mail software, which does not breach the market abuse rules.

But the biggest farce is that very few ordinary people actually buy Windows, as such. They get it pre-loaded with the computers they buy, so the choice of version is largely made by computer makers. Very few of these will risk selling their products without the multimedia version, so the "EU approved" version will be sitting on the shelves unsold.

Needless to say, though, the good 'ol EU is taking its action to protect consumers. In this, at least it is being consistent. Most other things it does it screws up, so why should it make an exception in this case?