December 22, 2004

Jeremy Allison weighs in on EU/MS appeal decision

Author: Joe Barr and Chris Preimesberger

Microsoft today lost its appeal of the European Union ruling which requires it to -- among other things -- unbundle the Windows Media Player in order to level the playing field with other firms offering the same functionality for streaming audio and video. It must also make public the information required to allow others to interoperate with the Windows platform. But don't break out the champagne just yet. According to Jeremy Allison, the lead Samba.org developer, if the ruling doesn't preclude royalties, then the whole effort by the EU will turn out to have been a waste of time.

The ruling issued in March stated, "The European Commission has concluded, after a five-year investigation, that Microsoft Corp. broke European Union competition law by leveraging its near-monopoly in the market for PC operating systems (OS) onto the markets for work group server operating systems (1) and for media players (2). Because the illegal behavior is still ongoing, the Commission has ordered Microsoft to disclose to competitors, within 120 days, the interfaces(3) required for their products to be able to 'talk' with the ubiquitous Windows OS. Microsoft is also required, within 90 days, to offer a version of its Windows OS without Windows Media Player to PC manufacturers (or when selling directly to end users)."

Microsoft appealed that ruling, hoping to delay its compliance with the ruling for as long as possible, and claiming irreparable harm would befall the company if it were forced to abide by it.

Microsoft responded to the latest ruling -- the denial of its appeal -- in a statement today by Brad Smith, senior vice president and general counsel for Microsoft, who addressed a conference-call audience of journalists and analysts. He said:

[This decision] really means two things. No. 1, we will activate later today a Web site that our competitors will be able to go to, to start getting information and start going through the process of licensing the communications protocols. We're studying the decision carefully, but we will have that Web site activated later today. As in the United States under the Consent Decree there, there will be particular steps the companies will go through. We've had over 20 companies license our communications protocols in the United States, so we've now established a fair degree of experience that we can learn from and will apply going forward in Europe.

Similarly, we will go forward immediately to continue and then complete the work needed to offer in Europe the additional version of Windows that we are required to provide. We have an agreed-upon timetable with the European Commission. Under that timetable, we will complete the final stages of testing and then this additional version of Windows will be made available to PC manufacturers in Europe in January, and it will make its way throughout the rest of the distribution channel so that we expect that resellers in Europe will have this version available to them by February.

But there is more than the media player market at stake in these two rulings. There is also the whole area of "work group servers," an area of computing which is of particular interest to the Samba project, which provides "seamless file and print services to SMB/CIFS clients."

Samba project lead Jeremy Allison cautioned that if Microsoft is able to get royalties included in its licensing of the APIs it is required to make public, the whole effort of the EU will have been a waste of time. On the specific issue of the ruling on Microsoft's appeal, he said, "Could be great, let's wait and see what the details are."

Microsoft provides information about its SMB/CIFS API in the United States in a way that makes it completely unusable by GPL-licensed software, like Samba. Under the GPL, no restrictions on its use, like the royalty charges, are allowed.

Asked if there is anything that can be done to prevent Microsoft from using its U.S. licensing terms in Europe, Allison said, "The Free Software Foundation Europe is in very close communication with the European Union, with the people who are basically pushing negotiations with Microsoft. They are well aware of our position. Whether they do anything about it or not, I don't know, but they are well aware of they need to do to make free software able to compete."

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