EU antitrust ruling renews hope for developers

Open-source developers hope that the ruling will make it easier for them to compete with -- and interoperate with -- Microsoft's products

Microsoft's defeat in a European appeals court Monday has left open-source developers hopeful about the future although still dissatisfied with the company's compliance with a 3-year-old antitrust ruling.

[ Video: MS loses EU antitrust appeal | Plus: EC wins appeal, but MS dominates market | With MS ruling, a precedent for IT in Europe ]

The European Commission ordered Microsoft to license its workgroup server communications protocols to rivals in March 2004, aiming to make it easier for those companies to develop and sell enterprise software interoperating -- and competing -- with Microsoft's own products.

So far, though, there have been few takers for the licenses Microsoft now proposes under its WSPP (Workgroup Server Protocol Program) -- and the licenses have proved useless to open-source developers.

"It's been an abject failure in restoring competition," said Jeremy Allison, co-creator of the open-source workgroup file and print server software Samba.

The Commission's ruling, against which Microsoft appealed in June 2004, came at the conclusion of a broader antitrust investigation in which the Commission found Microsoft had used its dominance in desktop operating systems to influence the markets for media players and workgroup server operating systems.

Microsoft complied rapidly with other aspects of the ruling, paying a fine of €497 million (then $600 million) and appointing an independent monitoring trustee to oversee its compliance, but it dragged its heels on the protocols.

Microsoft asked for clarification upon clarification of what the Commission wanted it to do, prompting the independent monitoring trustee appointed by the Commission to declare that the information Microsoft had provided by December 2005 was "useless." In July 2006, frustrated by the delays, the Commission fined Microsoft a further €280.5 million for failing to provide technical details of the communications protocols in a timely manner.

Now that the European Court of First Instance has rejected Microsoft's appeal, the company must live with the WSPP, as it has lived for some years with a similar licensing plan, the MCPP (Microsoft Communications Protocol Program), set up following a U.S. Department of Justice ruling in another antitrust case.

MCPP has its supporters: "It allowed us to innovate our products in ways we would not have been able to," said Michael Tennefoss, head of strategic marketing at Aruba Networks, adding that Microsoft's thorough documentation allowed the company to complete product development quickly.

MCPP is essential to development efforts at Secure Computing, vice president of product management Scott Montgomery said. It has saved the company the expense of reverse-engineering the protocols used by Microsoft's server products to determine how to interoperate with them.

Quantifying the cost of that reverse-engineering effort was difficult, said Montgomery, "But it would always come up orders of magnitude greater than the cost of buying the kit."

However, he regretted that "Microsoft had to have a gun put to its head before it would disclose this information."

Allison is skeptical of the innovation that MCPP's supporters say it enables: No one is using it to create products that compete head-on with core Microsoft technologies, such as Active Directory Domain Controllers, he said.

The Samba project's developers can't benefit from either MCPP or its European counterpart WSPP because the licensing terms Microsoft imposes are incompatible with the way open-source and free software projects distribute their software, Allison said.

Jean-Paul Smets, CEO of French open-source ERP vendor Nexedi, is pleased that the court has reaffirmed the Commission's ruling but fears that Microsoft will keep finding ways to make it difficult for companies like his to make use of information about its protocols.

For Allison, though, the court's decision presents a fresh opportunity to influence the WSPP licenses and level the playing field.

"We are going to be pushing very strongly for licenses compatible with open-source projects," he said.

(With additional reporting by James Niccolai in Paris and Paul Meller in Brussels.)

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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