Microsoft, the American software giant, failed yesterday to head off a major confrontation with the Euro-pean Commission despite unveiling a shift in policy it claimed would bring it fully into line with European Union laws.
The company said it would provide free or cheap access to the majority of the code underlying its most popular applications, addressing concerns that its size and scale has enabled it to engage in monopolistic practices.
However, the Commission said Microsoft's announcement did not directly address one of its chief concerns about the company's business practices – that it has previously linked products together, effectively stifling competition by requiring customers using Micro-soft operating systems to buy other products from it rather than rival software producers. The Commission also expressed scepticism about Microsoft's intentions, warning that the software giant had made similar statements of intent in the past. "This announcement does not relate to the question of whether or not Microsoft has been complying with EU antitrust rules in this area in the past," a spokesman said.
"The Commission notes that today's announcement follows at least four similar statements by Microsoft in the past on the importance of interoperability."
However, Microsoft said its change of policy would enable other software producers to develop products that worked in tandem with its packages, including versions of Windows such as Vista, and Office products such as Word and Excel.
In theory, this should give consumers more choice, enabling them to use rival software companies' products whether or not they had also installed Microsoft packages. Microsoft promised to immediately begin publishing more than 30,000 pages of documentation of the details of its software on its website. The company said it would make it clear which code it held patents on and offer rivals licenses at low rates. Non-patented protocols will be freely available.
Steve Ballmer, Micro-soft's chief executive officer, des-cribed the move as "an important step and significant change" and promised to supply the Commission with full details of how it intended to comply with rulings against it. "For the past 33 years, we have shared a lot of information with hundreds of thousands of providers , but today's announcement represents even greater transparency," he said. "Our goal is to promote greater interoperability, opportunity and choice for customers and developers by making our products more open."
Microsoft is under particular pressure from Euro-pean regulators after a ruling against it on product tying last September from the European Court of First Instance. The Commission subsequently launched two formal competition investigations into the company. It has also been fined €778m (£587m) in recent years.