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The European Commission's experts have decided they should do something about Microsoft, but face two problems - how to make the solution legally watertight, and how to make it work. That, according to Reuters, means the the Commission's move against Microsoft could still be some way off.

We've noticed that Reuters is generally pretty well up on the case in Brussels, but this piece seems particularly informative. The background here is that the EU's Court of First Instance last year reversed three Commission decisions, so whereas previously the Commission could more or less work on the basis of 'what we say goes,' it's now had to get its act together better. Draft proposals are now checked for legal and technical vulnerabilities, and it appears that the Microsoft ones have failed the test.

There are two basic areas the Commission wants to tackle - server software, and Media Player. It's concluded that Microsoft is giving itself preferential treatment in links between desktop and server operating systems, and that it should therefore order Microsoft to give its rivals more information. But even if its instructions are a lot tighter than the ones in the US final settlement (which would not be difficult), it's of the view that Microsoft will try to wriggle out anyway. Whatever it does therefore has to nail the company down very tightly.

The Media Player issue differs in that the argument is really the old bundling/integration one we saw over Internet Explorer. From the consumer's point of view there clearly are conveniences and benefits offered by having a standard player come with the OS. Some - The Reg included - might argue there are associated inconveniences related to the ultimate ownership of what you thought was 'your' record collection, but the initial convenience is still pretty clear.

This consumer convenience does however impact the business of other companies who produce add-on software, and even if consumers have the ability to hide Media Player and install rival software, companies providing digital content will tend to take the easy way out, catering for the 'universal' platform that comes with the OS first, and then maybe worrying about others.

Jim Barksdale covered this during the States' phase of the US case, arguing that hiding didn't work, and that the software had to be entirely ripped out. That has the defect of breaking all apps written on the assumption that what's been ripped out exists, and is therefore an inconvenience for both consumer and developer. But that said he's right, hiding doesn't work, and the longer you leave it before you insist on rip-out, the more people you'll screw up when (or if) you do.

Alongside this you have to balance the question of how severely you inconvenience the consumer in order to impede a company's progress towards monopoly, and the extent to which you should hobble Microsoft over, say, Sun, on the basis that Microsoft is an immediate threat to competition whereas Sun is not.

Tricky questions, all. But it's probably good that the Commission is considering them, even if it does mean the final decision will be delayed for another million years or so. Better to take time to figure out the right answer than just throw a bunch of wrong ones at the problem. But what the right answer might be is certainly not immediately obvious to us. Actually, we kind of liked Jackson's 'smash it up' gambit; this quite clearly was a wrong answer, but we felt some of the right outcomes might have emerged from it as collateral damage, which would at least have been something. ®

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