EC may force Microsoft to sell two Windows versions

By Paul Meller, IDG News Service |  Operating Systems

European Commissioner for competition Mario Monti may demand that Microsoft Corp. sell two versions of its ubiquitous operating system, Windows, in Europe: one with Media Player inside as it does at present, and another with the music and video playing software stripped out and sold separately, people close to the case said on Tuesday.

Monti may also demand that Microsoft itself should propose "within a few months of a ruling" what Windows computer code it should reveal in order to make the operating system fully interoperable with rival software makers' programs for servers, which drive networks of PCs, one of the people said.

These likely remedies will come attached to a negative ruling that brands Microsoft an abusive monopolist, unless a settlement is reached during the next month to six weeks. A negative ruling is expected to carry with it a fine of at least US$100 million.

Neither the Commission nor Microsoft would comment on the remedies. A Microsoft spokesman said the company is still pursuing "an amicable settlement."

An internal consultation within the European Commission has finished, and the proposed negative ruling drafted by the competition department in January has emerged "almost untouched", the person who insisted on anonymity said.

Erkki Liikanen, the commissioner for the information society, urged Monti to be tougher on Microsoft over the Media Player issue, while Frits Bolkestein, the commissioner for the internal market, warned Monti not to infringe Microsoft's intellectual property in the part of the ruling that concerns interoperability, the person said.

Last August the Commission told Microsoft that its practice of bundling Media Player into Windows amounted to an abuse of the operating system's dominant position because it placed rival music and video players at a disadvantage.

The Commission agreed with Microsoft's rivals, which argue that firms offering content such as record companies and Hollywood studios, which can be played on media players, will increasingly tailor their products exclusively for Microsoft's Media Player, because it will be the only player they are sure that people will have on their PCs.

Microsoft has argued that unbundling Media Player from Windows would prevent the operating system from working properly. It also fears the precedent that would be set if it did agree to separate Media Player from Windows.

Future software products, such as an Internet search engine which Microsoft plans to launch to compete with the Google search engine, count on the bundling business model Microsoft has employed with all its most successful software products including Internet Explorer, Word and Outlook Express.

Another person close to the case said the two operating systems solution would ensure consumer choice, while allowing Microsoft to preserve its existing business model.

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