James O'Neill's Blog

September 20, 2006

The first rule of Politics. Microsoft and the EU

Filed under: General musings,Windows Vista — jamesone111 @ 1:38 pm

Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay know a fair bit about politics, which was how they came to write the hugely popular “Yes Minister” series . They wrote that the first rule of politics is “Never believe anything until it has been officially denied”.

A lot of the news I saw yesterday said EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes denies having a vendetta against Microsoft.” She took the slightly unusual step of responding to a letter in the Financial times which said she did. You can read her response … have a close look at the language she uses to describe Microsoft and Windows Vista 

Throughout these discussions, it has always been my aim pre-emptively to minimise the risk that a company with a near-monopoly position, and which has been found to have engaged in anti-competitive conduct in many jurisdictions around the world, releases a product that could have the clear potential to hinder effective competition in the market.

Does this sound like someone whose view of Microsoft (and it’s upcoming products) is (a) positive (b) Neutral  or (c) Negative ? Also, note she wants to minimize the risk that Microsoft releases a product with the potential to hinder competition. Not a product which actually hinders competition, but one which might. She goes on…

I have seen it suggested that the Commission may seek to prevent Microsoft from improving the security of its operating system.
This is categorically not the case. We do nevertheless seek to ensure that rival security software vendors, who have traditionally been the innovators in this area, are able to compete on a level playing field.

Notice the way that Commission Kroes says that that Microsoft’s rivals innovate, but Microsoft does not.  But does ensuring a level playing field mean:

  • No Anti-phishing filter in IE because other people want to provide that service ?
  • No Patch guard, because protecting against rootkits breaks some AV software (e.g. Symantec’s) which is implemented as a root kit ?
  • A European version of Windows without Defender, Firewall or bit locker so customers have to buy equivalent software ?
  • Denying access to http://safety.live.com/ from European IP addresses ?

Actually I have a tiny scrap of sympathy for someone who is charged with matters of Competition but not with the interests of consumers. How so ? Well it is rarely in the interests of competition for any new feature to be added to an operating system. Things we take for granted today were once purchased 3rd party add-ons. Before Windows NT and Windows for Workgroups 3.11 if you wanted IP networking you had to buy a TCP/IP stack. Without GUI PCs with an IP stack it’s hard to see how the Internet would have become all pervasive; that was good for consumers, it was good for jobs, but it was bad for companies like Wollongong, and FTP inc, who produced IP stacks.  A commissioner for competition should really have kept TCP/IP out of Windows, and stifled the Internet. Who wants the job of being the commissioner against progress ?
I’ve yet to meet a consumer who thinks that  Commissioner Kroes is acting in their best interests by keeping features out of the OS. And it’s never consumer interest groups who ask her to act, but Microsoft competitors. At the behest of Real Networks, her office brought about “Windows XP-N” variant. -N meaning “No media, by order of the EU”, or “Nobody wants it” depending on your point of view. Not a single copy has ever been sold.

Does she have a vendetta against Microsoft ? It’s hard to ask that question without thinking about “the fine” €497M for not disclosing… well exactly what is a bit of mystery: the commission demanded full and complete disclosure of the working of the Windows 2003 server, but never explained in what ways the disclosure was partial and/or incomplete. Small wonder the matter looks set to be in court for years. SiliconValley.com reported a claim by Kroes that “European policy toward the software company does not differ substantially from that of the U.S” – yet the Americans never told anyone they had to give trade secrets to people to help them build competing products.

It has also been reported that the commission wants to prevent any bundling of software to write PDF files. Currently one company (Adobe) has a “Near-monopoly position” when it comes to supplying tools to do this. If someone else entered the market this would be a good for consumers.. keeping Microsoft out makes it hard for the Commission to claim to be defenders of a level playing field.

The Commissioner complains that There appears to be a co-ordinated campaign to portray the Commission in a negative light. British commissioners are usually chums of the Prime Minister who are embarrassingly hard to find jobs for at home, so much of Britain has had a pretty negative view of the lot of them.  Harry S. Truman, talked about not giving opponents hell he “just told the truth and they thought it was hell” – and I can’t find any evidence of co-ordination.  For example, Sonia Arrison wrote a piece for Tech News World, entitled Europe’s technology problem: the EC which opens – Neelie Kroes and her staff are acting like spoiled children, as they are basically telling Microsoft, “We think you have problems, but we won’t tell you how to fix them.” That’s disappointing leadership from Kroes, who was recently named by Forbes as one of the “World’s Most Powerful Women.”

 So the big question is will this affect the ship date for Vista ? Gartner still doesn’t think we’ll make the date and Tysonhy reports that they’re saying we might blame the EU – though we couldn’t pin a global delay on them. I still think we’ll make the ship date; might we hold off shipping in Europe ? 20 years of antipathy towards the EU means makes me dream of full page newspaper adverts all over Europe explaining how the commission stopped Europe getting the benefits of Vista that the rest of the world was enjoying  (i.e. show them what a co-ordinated campaign really is) – but I just can’t see that happening in the real world (we’d look like spoiled children then). The EU can’t or won’t say if they are happy with our answers to their “79 concerns“; my guess is if we think we’ve covered them we’ll ship.

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.


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