IBM faces fresh EU antitrust complaint

Antitrust problems for IBM mounted on Tuesday when a fresh complaint about its business practices was filed with Europe’s top competition regulator.

The new complaint comes from TurboHercules, a French company, which is accusing the US group of refusing to allow customers to run IBM’s mainframe operating systems on anything other than IBM mainframe hardware, an illegal practice known as “tying”.

This is the latest in a spate of complaints against the US technology company on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, competition officials at the European Commission started to look at IBM’s mainframe activities several years ago, following objections from a small technology company called PSI.

PSI was subsequently bought out by IBM but a second complaint from another smaller rival of IBM’s, called T3 Technologies, followed in January last year. Microsoft, one of IBM’s big rivals, made investments in both PSI and T3 at various stages.

Meanwhile, in the US, the Department of Justice started a preliminary investigation into IBM’s dominance of the mainframe computer market last autumn, sending out requests for information. This appeared to be triggered, at least in part, by a complaint from the Computer and Communications Industry Association, an industry group that includes some large IT companies such as Google and Microsoft, as well as much smaller groups.

The US complaint was said to be somewhat broader than the two original complaints in Europe, for example, citing T3’s experiences but also making allegations about IBM’s behaviour towards Hercules, an open-source product designed to enable IBM’s systems to run on Intel and AMD-based servers and personal computers.

The complainant, TurboHercules, was set up last year to commercialise Hercules’s open-source “emulation” software – which includes disaster recovery products that protect customers’ data if there is a mainframe failure.

The French company claims to have asked IBM to license its mainframe operating systems to customers for use with Hercules – but says it was accused of patent infringement in reply.

When asked to comment on the TurboHercules complaint, IBM said: “We have not been notified of this complaint and are thus unable to comment.”

Roger Bowler, TurboHercules’s founder, said his company was “by no means anti-IBM”.

In its complaint to the commission, TurboHercules is asking competition officials to order IBM to end the alleged tying and make available its interfaces and protocols.

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