EU commissioner suspicious of bundled utilities in Windows Vista

UPDATE 29 March 2006 3:55 pm ET

Brussels (Belgium) - The European Commission spokesperson who told Reuters this morning that the EC is investigating possible anti-trust concerns about Windows Vista, told's Ed Sutherland this afternoon that Microsoft must forego plans to bundle certain software and services from Windows Vista - the identities of which remain undisclosed - or else face the possibility of being barred from selling Vista in all of Europe.

The report appears to verify what, at first, appeared to be a possible error in a Reuters story earlier this morning: The EC is apparently concerned that a future feature of the operating system that enables users to produce PDF files (Portable Document Format, or Adobe Acrobat) from common documents such as Microsoft Office files. If this is indeed correct, the EC is worried that such a feature would unfairly compete with similar offerings from Adobe itself, which created the format, even though Adobe has worked for the last decade to make PDF a standard and license it to other companies. Other independent software manufacturers also sell utilities that convert Office document formats to PDF files.

According to reports this morning from Reuters and The Wall Street Journal, the EU's commissioner for competitiveness, Neelie Kroes, has launched a new wave of possible antitrust concerns about Microsoft's forthcoming Windows Vista. Those reports indicate that Kroes is studying whether certain features of Vista may be giving Microsoft an unfair advantage with regard to its Windows Live Search service, which the company is testing now, and which will likely be formally rolled out when Vista becomes available to consumers in January.

Reuters is reporting this morning that Kroes expressed her concerns in a formal letter to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. In separate interviews, a spokesperson for Kroes stated the letter focused on different concerns. One report states the letter discussed whether Microsoft plans to bundle classes of software with Vista that may unfairly compete with similar classes available separately from other manufacturers, though the spokesperson did not state which classes those were. Another report cites the same spokesperson as stating the letter discussed whether certain features, such as Internet Explorer 7, will unfairly tie Vista to Windows Live Search.

The most recent beta of IE7, which is freely downloadable from Microsoft and which TG Daily has experimented with, includes a new feature where Web sites can "publish" their search capabilities in a similar manner to publishing their RSS feeds through a Web page. Users can grab onto these search services, enabling Web sites of any size and scope to embed their search capabilities, complete with exclusive logos, in IE7's search bar. To the extent that we have tested this feature, we did not detect any particular leanings toward Microsoft services, except for the fact that MSN Search is one of the default search engines.

Microsoft's new design for the Start button on Vista-compliant keyboards. (Courtesy Microsoft)

However, one Microsoft plan to extend the reach of its "Live" services through hardware may be attracting the attention of the European Commission. The last few drafts of the Windows Logo Program Device Requirements for Vista have advised OEMs to change the shape of the "Start button" keycap included on Windows-compliant keyboards. The new keycap should feature an indented, polished dome with the Windows flag logo in the center of the dome, rather than simply printing the flag logo on a typical keycap. A document last month detailing the engineering specifications for recommended keycaps described its purpose using this language: "The Hardware Start Button for the Windows Vista family of operating systems is designed to be an attractive, efficient, and discoverable actuator to launch both the Start menu and the powerful new search experience in Windows Vista."

Alternately, last month's document provides instructions for manufacturers who would prefer to provide a full color Windows logo instead, printed on reflective chrome and embedded behind a transparent plastic dome, which is then fused to the keycap.

If the revised Start button is to serve as an exclusive launch key for Windows Live Search, and if the shape and form of that button must meet specific engineering requirements for the entire computer to which it's attached to qualify for a Windows logo, then investigators could be curious as to whether such exclusivity would give Microsoft an unfair advantage. Similar issues were raised a decade ago when OEMs were required to provide desktop logos favoring some ISPs and other services, such as MSN, to the exclusion of others. If the EC's investigation has reached this far, then it could be wondering whether the keyboard is, in one sense, the new desktop.

A BBC report this morning states that two other areas of continuing concern for the EC are Microsoft's persistence in pursuing its exclusive digital rights management technology in Windows Media Player, and whether Microsoft plans to use its dominance in the applications field to promote a closed specification for office documents. This morning, the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS) - a collaborative legal venture which represents IBM, Oracle, Novell, Sun, and Red Hat, among other companies - announced that it has been asked by the EC to give evidence in an upcoming hearing, probably this week, regarding Microsoft's compliance with its December 2004 antitrust order. Last month, the ECIS issued an informal complaint that Microsoft was unfairly refusing to disclose details of its Office document formats, preventing others from building onto those formats, while at the same time declining to support the OpenDocument format being developed by Sun and others in the open source community.

This complaint came several months after Microsoft had already announced it was shifting its default document formats for the suite now called Office 2007, to an XML-based format now dubbed Office Open XML, whose details have already been revealed to developers through the ECMA standards body. While the format is not OpenDocument, Microsoft has maintained that for OpenDocument to be a true data standard, it would have to have obtained wide acceptance by users, which their continued reliance upon Office proves they have not. Still, Microsoft has responded to the ECIS' complaints by joining the OpenDocument standards body, leading to speculation that the only reason Microsoft would want to join the team responsible for developing a rival format, would be to slow that team down.

Microsoft remains bound by a December 2005 decision by the EC to provide documentation explaining how Windows can be made interoperable with other operating systems. To this point, the company has turned over tens of thousands of pages of documentation, has offered free licenses to certain elements of Windows source code that deal with networking and interoperability, and has recently bolstered that offer with promises of free technical support. But the EC has consistently responded to this point by stating that the information Microsoft has turned over thus far, has failed to meet a certain standard. Objections recently raised by Microsoft have raised the question of, at the very least, whether EC commissioners planned to object to Microsoft's documentation well prior to reading it or even receiving it.

If the EC holds to its promise of fining Microsoft up to €2 million per day for failing to explain how Windows and Linux could possibly get along, Microsoft could raise an appeal before the EU's Court of First Instance, and may already be compiling evidence to support its own claims of unfairness, should that circumstance arise.