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France opens probe into MS Windows monopoly

Wonders why you can't buy PCs without Windows. Now, there's a question...

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The French finance ministry has opened an investigation into Microsoft, according to the local press. Apparently it has come to the ministry's attention that it's well-nigh impossible to buy a new PC that doesn't come with Windows pre-installed, so the French authorities will be asking why this is, and whether it harms consumers. These two questions, readers of The Register's trial coverage will have noted, are inextricably bound together. Microsoft discount structures and MDAs (Market Development Agreements) make it prohibitively expensive for PC OEMs to ship rival operating systems, which results in a reduction in consumer choice, and in what is to all intents and purposes a monopoly of the desktop OS market (precise conclusion currently sub judice) for Microsoft. Microsoft can and does fix prices (search trial coverage for 'Kempin' for more details), so the FF64k question is whether MS fixes them nicely or nastily, and whether French consumers would be better off if they could get, say, Linux or BeOS PCs. But it's not clear how intensively the ministry intends to investigate. It says it's had quantities of complaints, and will be producing a report which, depending on findings, could be referred to antitrust authorities. If it finds things it doesn't like France might decide to go it alone, but ultimate responsibility will still lie with the EU. Brussels and the US antitrust authorities currently have a mutual agreement whereby they try not to duplicate investigations, and as far as the matter of Microsoft is concerned, the US is lead member. That of course could change if the result of the current antitrust trial is viewed as unpalatable by Brussels, but until the dust settles Europe's preference will be to avoid getting involved in a duplicate bust. Whether France will agree with this could of course be an entirely different matter. ®

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