Ohh man, this is so sweeeet!! If you’re a lover of freedom, that is. If you think the rich and powerful should be allowed to do what they like, when they like, to whoever they like, then you may be dismayed. But the news, which I got from this BBC link, is good news to anyone whose opinion means anything to me.
If you don’t know the details of the case, I’ll give you the basics. In 2004, the European Commission decided that Microsoft was acting in an anti-competitive manner – for instance, if you bought their Windows operating system software, you had to buy their media player too. This made the market ridiculously stacked against the other manufacturers of media players. Player XYZ might be much better than Microsoft’s offering – and Microsoft’s products are notorious for their poor quality – but if you already had Microsoft’s media player (which you would, if you’d bought Windows) then you’d be less keen to shell out for another. If multimedia was of great importance to you, you’d make the sacrifice of effectively paying twice so you’d have a decent experience. But if you were one of the many customers who thought they’d just make do with the crap that had been forced on them rather than pay again… well, it’s obvious. Just as it was to the European Commission.
And if you were one of the discerning consumers who decided to do without any of Microsoft’s crapware… well, Microsoft had a trick up its evil sleeve for you too. Now that so much business is done online, your computer is likely to have to communicate with computers that are running Windows. But if your computer wasn’t running Windows as well, the two systems couldn’t interoperate properly. Microsoft built incompatibilities into its operating system. And Microsoft refused to tell its competitors how they might be able to adapt their own product to interoperate with the Windows rubbish. “Trade secrets,” said Microsoft. “Bullshit,” replied the EC.
So in 2004, after thoroughly investigating Microsoft’s business practices, the EC ordered the software company to stop this anti-competitive behaviour. And the Commission fined Microsoft for every day that the company refused to obey the law – fines that added up to over 280 million euros in six months!
Of course Microsoft appealed. They couldn’t just start obeying the same laws that their competitors had to. Microsoft’s entire business strategy is built on the concept of forcing everyone to buy their products – the infamous “Microsoft lock-in”. So they appealed to the European Court of First Instance. And today that court announced its decision.
They upheld every detail of the EC’s earlier decision, except one minor point. The EC wanted there to be an independent trustee to watch over Microsoft’s future behaviour, to make sure the crooks didn’t fall back into their old habits. The court thought this would be too invasive. Lucky old Microsoft, eh!
But Microsoft have to stop “bundling” software like its media player with the Windows operating system. Microsoft must reveal its technological “secrets” to the other players in the European computing business (this is something that’s standard practice with other companies – they call it “standards”!)
And, ohh, this must be so galling to the miserly “robber barons” in charge of the Microsoft machine – Microsoft must pay a fine of 497 million euros! £343 million! US$690 million! And they even have to pay 80% of the EC’s legal costs! (The EC, in turn, must pay some proportion of Microsoft’s lawyers’ bill – though I’m sure it’s nothing like what the guilty ones must cough up). This massive cost won’t just anger the management – think how the shareholders must feel!!
Do you think Microsoft will learn their lesson from this punishment? Do you think the criminals will be cowed, repentant, rehabilitated? Hah! Even as they reel from the blows of the European Court, Microsoft are dreaming up other ways to impose the lock-in. Their competitors have decided to agree on a common, open format for files like text documents and spreadsheets. Everyone seems happy with a format called .odf (open document format). But Microsoft are trying to impose their own format – OOXML – and appear to be bribing or pressuring everyone they can get at to agree with them. And they’re threatening developers of Linux – the Free Software operating system – with legal action based on software patents that most knowledgeable people agree are phoney.
Now is the time for everyone who uses computers to stand up against the purveyors of lock-in and the threat of litigation. Microsoft’s latest OS – Vista – is widely judged to be amongst the most insecure, unstable and encumbered code they’ve ever released! And to run Vista, you need to buy powerful, expensive hardware! All of Microsoft’s long-suffering victims, whose dependence on legacy formats 20 years out of date has kept them locked-in to this arrogant corporation – now they must say “No more!” There are other software solutions – there’s UNIX – there’s Apple’s OSX, itself based on UNIX – and there’s Linux, the Free version of UNIX – all these operating systems are far more advanced and secure than anything Microsoft can hack together. And, because they all share that common UNIX ancestry, they can interoperate at all levels… something Windows could never do, even if its owners wanted it to.
Today’s decision of the European Court of First Instance has been a heavy blow to the bully of the software world. And it’s a wake-up call to everyone else.