Microsoft Offers Rivals Unlimited Interop Tech Support

Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday offered "free, unlimited technical support" to rivals interested in making their software work with Microsoft servers, saying it wanted to comply with a landmark EU antitrust ruling.

"We are committed to doing everything in our power to address the (European) Commission's concerns," Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said in a statement.

A spokesman for the EU's antitrust office said the Microsoft offer "seems to be a constructive proposal," but said the company needed to make more efforts to fully fall in line with the EU's 2004 ruling.

"Microsoft will naturally be well placed to answer questions from licensees on specific points of the technical documents," EU spokesman Jonathan Todd said.

He insisted, however, that even two years after the ruling that forced Microsoft to share technical details with rivals, Microsoft's efforts remained insufficient.

"The Commission's preliminary view is that the technical documentation still does not comply with the requirements of the March 2004 decision," he said. The EU has threatened Microsoft with 2 million euros ($2.4 million) in daily fines, backdated to Dec. 15, and said it would make its final decision after Microsoft pleaded its case at a hearing next week.

"Microsoft will have the opportunity to explain how this technical support is relevant to the March 2004 decision," Todd said.

The EU levied a record 497 million euro ($603 million) fine against Microsoft in March 2004. It also ordered the company to share code with rivals and to offer a version of Windows without the Media Player software.

Microsoft is appealing the ruling, and the case will be heard in late April by the European Court of First Instance, the EU's second-highest court.

In the meantime, Microsoft said the documentation already made available and Wednesday's offer showed the company's good intentions.

"These new documentation projects, together with free and unlimited technical support and access to Windows source code, will ensure that our competitors have all the assistance they need," Smith said.

Up to now, Microsoft had offered up to 500 hours of technical support free of charge and upped that to an unlimited amount on Wednesday. "We are committed to taking every possible step to satisfy the Commission's requirements," Smith said.

Todd said that, in principle, rivals should be able to make their software compatible with Microsoft servers based on nothing but the technical documentation itself.

"Companies trying to compete with Microsoft must be able to have access to usable, workable documentation and should not be forced to rely on help from Microsoft staff," he said.

The man appointed to monitor Microsoft's compliance with the EU ruling -- computer science professor Neil Barrett -- has found that although the documentation had improved slightly over the past months, there were still significant gaps in meeting standards.

Microsoft said it had devoted over 30,000 hours to developing extensive documentation and said in a statement it "meets or exceeds industry standards."


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