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Microsoft’s battles with antitrust regulators on both sides of the Atlantic have been a consistent feature of Bill Gates’ tenure.
While the software group managed to broker a deal with the US authorities in 2002 that ended its regulatory troubles in the country, Microsoft’s fight with the European Commission in Brussels is still very much alive.
In a landmark ruling in March 2004, the Commission found Microsoft guilty of violating European Union competition rules by abusing its dominant position in the market for personal computer operating systems. Microsoft was fined a record €497m ($628m) and told to change its business practices.
The group was told to share more information about its flagship Windows programme with rival companies and to stop bundling its Windows Media Player software with the operating system.
Adding to Microsoft’s regulatory worries in Europe is the fact that Brussels is also taking aim at Vista, the operating system set to replace Windows next year.
Neelie Kroes, the EU competition commissioner, wrote to Microsoft this year warning that Vista could fall foul of competition rules – again by bundling new functionalities into the operating system and so shutting out rival software that is sold on a standalone basis.
Mr Gates, who took a highly active and very visible role in Microsoft’s battle with US regulators, has largely taken a backseat role in Europe.
In fact, his first contact with Mario Monti, the former EU competition commissioner who presided over the Microsoft ruling, came only days before the Commission decided to rule against the group. The two men spoke briefly on the telephone, but did not discuss the substance of the case.
As with so many of the other challenges faced by the group today, the task of dealing with regulators around the globe has over recent years fallen largely to Steve Ballmer, who took over as Microsoft CEO in 2000.