Microsoft's ISO win may worsen its antitrust woes

Allegations of foul play in the OOXML voting process could draw the ire of European Commission antitrust investigators, who had previously addressed the issue

Microsoft may have won a year-long quest to make its OOXML (Office Open XML) document format an ISO-recognized international standard, but claims of foul play in the voting process may come back to haunt the software giant when the European Commission concludes its latest antitrust investigation of Microsoft's business practices.

When the Commission, Europe's top antitrust authority, opened a probe into Microsoft's business practices in January, it said part of the investigation would examine whether OOXML, as the format is known, is "sufficiently interoperable with competitors' products."

A month later ,the Commission sent a confidential request for information to all the national divisions of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in Europe, asking for information about the ongoing process of assessing OOXML.

"In your opinion, have there been any irregularities or attempts to influence the debate or vote on the ECMA 376 proposal as regards your organization? If so please provide details and any relevant facts," the Commission wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by IDG News Service. ECMA 376 is the title under which Microsoft submitted OOXML for consideration by the ISO.

The request for information, known as an Article 18 letter, is a formal procedure carried out by the Commission's antitrust officials, designed to gather evidence of antitrust abuse.

It was used in the first Microsoft investigation, which concluded in 2004. The replies the Commission received that time led to fresh antitrust charges that Microsoft had been unfairly bundling its Media Player with its Windows operating system.

If national ISO bodies return evidence that Microsoft attempted to influence the votes to secure acceptance of OOXML, it would strengthen the Commission's antitrust case.

One ISO official from Norway has already spoken of "serious irregularities" in the voting process in his country. Steve Pepper, chairman of the committee advising the Norwegian branch of the ISO, wrote to the central office of the ISO in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday, recommending that the Norwegian vote be excluded from the final tally.

Norway voted against granting OOXML ISO-standard status in the first round of votes last year. In the vote taken last weekend, it changed its mind and supported Microsoft's bid.

"You will have been notified that Norway voted to approve OOXML in this ballot. This decision does not reflect the view of the vast majority of the Norwegian committee, 80 percent of which was against changing Norway's vote ... to yes," Pepper wrote in the letter, which he also posted in his blog.

Any evidence that Microsoft corrupted the ISO voting process would strengthen the Commission's antitrust case, but the case would still be strong without such evidence, according to Thomas Vinje, legal counsel for the European Committee for Interoperable Systems, a trade group whose complaint forms the basis for part of the latest Microsoft antitrust probe.

"Granting ISO status to OOXML doesn't begin to resolve the competition law questions the Commission is looking into," Vinje said by telephone. ECIS members include some of Microsoft's biggest rivals in the computer industry: IBM, Sun and Oracle.

The Commission declined to comment on any impact the ISO vote would have on its antitrust case.

"Even if the votes were legitimately won -- which I doubt -- OOXML is not an open standard because it isn't fully implemented on competing platforms, and its future shape is subject purely to Microsoft's control," according to Vinje.

Jan van den Beld, a standards expert with the trade group CompTIA, disagreed, arguing that hundreds of technical experts from the national ISO branches would ensure that OOXML "will not mutate to the benefit of a single vendor." CompTIA is a longtime ally of Microsoft in its antitrust battles with regulators. Van den Beld's comments were made in a statement Tuesday.

The ECIS complaint that sparked the Commission's latest antitrust charges claims that Microsoft has unfairly withheld information from companies that wanted to make products compatible with the word processing, spreadsheet and office management tools in Microsoft Office. By withholding the interoperability information, Microsoft has effectively kept rivals out of this lucrative market, ECIS argues.

Confusingly, the Office Open XML format being assessed by the ISO "is not what Microsoft implements in the Office suite," Vinje said, adding that "If you implement OOXML, you don't get interoperability with Office."

"ISO status for OOXML is certainly not the end of the story for the Commission's antitrust case," he said.

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