Microsoft's anti-trust issues continue with DOJ, EU

Should the U.S. Department of Justice be done with its antitrust oversight of Microsoft or not? Or are we looking at a turf war between the DOJ and the European Union's European Commission over who gets to manage the unruly Microsoft? Today, the DOJ asked U.S. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to give it another 18 months of oversight. It wants more time, more leverage, to get Microsoft to fix its notorious problems with the publication of its communications protocols. In the meantime, the EC is still waiting, but giving Microsoft another week, to respond to its finding that bundling Internet Explorer with Windows violates antitrust regulations.

Hints of this development might have been found in statements made by the company yesterday when Microsoft released the beta of Exchange 2010, and announced the new name of its next generation Office products. In the press release, Chris Capossela, senior vice president of Microsoft’s Information Worker Product Management Group, promised that the Office 2010 products would be interoperable with others' wares. He said:

"There are two ways we are achieving this. First, we are implementing new document format standards and have dedicated product engineering resources to deliver technical documentation for in-market and future Office-related products. Second, we have published implementation notes and a great deal of technical documentation through our Open Specification Promise so third parties can develop products that work with Microsoft Office-related products. In 2008 alone, we published about 20,000 pages of documentation related to protocols and formats used by Microsoft Office, Exchange and SharePoint Server. "

Oddly, the DOJ's request on Thursday is an about-face from an earlier decision it made in 2007. The original antitrust order had already been extended by two years because of complaints about the state of the technical documentation. It was originally scheduled to expire in November 2007. When a group of states asked for another extension, the DOJ refused. These were the states involved in the original antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft.

In the meantime, the EU stepped in and started handing Microsoft big fines from what it saw as antitrust violations. In February 2008, the EC fined Microsoft $2.2 billion over what it saw as Microsoft's failure to publish adequate documentation on its communication protocols. Low and behold, Microsoft announced its Open Specification Promise. Amidst all this, the infamous battle over OOXML was taking place as European employees of Microsoft allegedly resorted to a whole list of unseemly behavior to get the document specification passed as a fast-track ISO standard.

But wait, the EC is not done. Several weeks ago it sided with a then year-old complaint filed by Opera Software that claimed that bundling Internet Explorer with Windows is an antitrust violation. The EC is waiting for a defense from Microsoft before it presumably forces Microsoft to unbundle IE and/or pay fines or other such penalties. The EC gave Microsoft an extension of the deadline for a reply until April 21 and yesterday Microsoft confirmed that the EC had actually given it another week, to April 28, to formulate its answer.

And today, the DOJ decides that it wants continued oversight over Microsoft afterall. Hmm.

Microsoft has always been a vicious competitor. But we suspect that issues over publication of its protocols has less to do with the DOJ's motives than the EC's pending decision about IE. It seems as though the DOJ doesn't want the EC calling all of Microsoft's shots.

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