Brussels and Microsoft step back from brink

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Microsoft and the European Commission appeared to be stepping back from months of conflict over the Vista operating system, after the US software group revealed on Friday that it had made significant changes to its new flagship product ahead of Vista’s launch next month.

Although the Brussels-based antitrust regulator stressed that it had not given a “green light” to Microsoft, Neelie Kroes, the European Union competition commissioner, gave an upbeat assessment.

“They promised they would behave and take into account our rules and regulations. Well, I’m a happy woman,’’ she told Reuters.

Microsoft’s competitors said they needed more time to assess the changes to Vista. But most of them welcomed the US software giant’s announcement that it would amend the operating system in order to ensure that computer users had a choice between using rival software or Microsoft’s own products.

The changes focus in particular on internet search, security software and a programme similar to Adobe’s PDF reader that lets users create and send fixed documents. Microsoft said it would develop interfaces that would allow rival software to connect better with the new operating system. It would also allow competing software to “override” Vista’s own functions should users install another product providing the same service.

Symantec, which had warned that the integration of Microsoft security features into Vista would undermine its business, said Microsoft’s concessions gave reason for “guarded optimism”.

However, Symantec said it was crucial that Microsoft made available details of the new interfaces to rival companies as fast as possible.

The company said: “If this is true then customers are going to be able to use whatever solution they want. The question is: when is this going to happen?”

Symantec said it would require the new information “in a matter of days” in order to make its security software products compatible with the Vista operating system in time for next month’s launch.

The probes by Brussels into Microsoft culminated in a landmark ruling in April 2004 that found Microsoft guilty of abusing a dominant position. The group was fined a record €497m ($622m), and this year was ordered to pay another €280.5m for failing to abide by the ruling.

But speaking to the Financial Times on Sunday, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, said the two sides had recently tried to tackle their differences in a more co-operative manner.

He stressed that the changes to Vista were based on clear Commission guidance: “In the last month or so the Commission gave us guidance that was quite explicit and direct. We got the clarity that we felt we needed.”

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