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MS to ship substandard Windows if EU axe falls

Windows without Media Player, like a bike without a phisycle...

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Well, here's a puzzle. At the close of today's European antitrust hearing Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith popped up and told reporters: "It is a confidential proceeding as you know, so I really can't talk about what we or others are saying inside the room, and as result, I'm sorry but I am really not in a position to answer any of your questions."

That is, he told them nothing. But "Microsoft Corp said it would be forced to offer European consumers a substandard version of Windows if the European Union makes it re-write its operating system," sources close to the case said. Like us, you may be hard put to identify sources close to the company sufficiently enslaved to trot out that party line without comment - having a hand there all the time must surely be painful.

But we get the message, and we know where it came from. Pull that trigger, sources close to Microsoft say, and Europe will be doomed to run second class Windows. Which amounts to, what?

The sources say that users will be deprived of the benefits of bundled Windows Media Player, the DRM-friendly Windows accessory Microsoft proposes as the music industry's weapon of choice for the digital age (unaccountably, the sources seem not to have mentioned that last bit).

The notion of Windows being diminished by the enforced removal of one of its components has a certain familiarity to it, but the differences between this instance and the last one are probably more significant than the parallels. In the early stages of the US antitrust trial a preliminary injunction forced Microsoft to remove IE from Windows. Microsoft first responded with foot-dragging, then in a heroic piece of dumb insolence offered a broken version of Windows, sans IE. It was we suppose not entirely impossible to break Windows by accident while removing IE, at that stage in the integration process, but the odds would have been heavily against it.

The entire matter however became irrelevant when the injunction was overturned.

This time around, there are differences in several areas. First of all, Microsoft is not arguing that Media Player is a key component without which Windows will not work. This would be an even more laughable contention than the earlier IE version, and is quite clearly unsustainable. Microsoft is not arguing that Media Player is essential for Windows, just that Windows would be in some way diminished if Media Player were not immediately available to users, and if they were instead given a choice of media players.

Second, the enforced removal of Media Player is much more of a promise than a threat. In the US the IE issue batted back and forth through the courts, resulting finally in Microsoft not having to perform the operation after all. In the EU, on the other hand, we are not talking about preliminary injunctions. The European Commission has already delivered its proposed verdict to Microsoft, and if there's any parallel with the US legal process then we are at a fairly late stage in the appeals process. There's still some scope for legal fannying around, but not a great deal.

Then there's the matter the sources seem not to have piped up about yet. The Commission intends to require Microsoft to open up Windows' interfaces to competitors, its intended targets being somewhat broader than was the case in the US. This is likely to be of considerable greater significance than the issue of whether or not Media Player gets bundled and if, as seems probable, the Commission's interest extends into Longhorn's APIs, Microsoft could find its style cramped considerably. ®

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