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EU ends longstanding Microsoft anti-trust dispute

The European Union says it has reached an agreement with computer giant Microsoft to end a decade-long anti-trust dispute and grant computer users in Europe access to rival Internet browsers.

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AFP - European competition enforcers on Wednesday brought the curtain down on a decade-long anti-trust tussle with computer giant Microsoft, with a deal to open up new PCs to rival Internet browsers.

The binding agreement announced by Brussels lets computer users in Europe who buy new hardware based on Microsoft's Windows operating system choose which browser they want to install at the point of configuring their machine.

It comes into force as of mid-March, for five years, and with a similar undertaking also accepted informally on interoperability of other broad-based PC software and applications, represents peace breaking out after years of massive fines backed by an EU court.

The decision represents "a Christmas present for hundreds of millions of Europeans," EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes told a press conference.

"We will just look over what is left, shall we say," when asked if outstanding competition complaints with Microsoft remain on the table.

"Microsoft is well aware, in competition terms, what has to be avoided," she underlined.

The EU commission was concerned that consumers were not being allowed to make an "unbiased" choice between Microsoft's software and related applications and those of rivals including Mozilla's Firefox, Google's Chrome or Opera.

Under the deal, users across the European Economic Area, the 27 EU nations plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, will have in-built freedom of choice for five years from the agreement's implementation in March 2010.

"This decision ... legally binds Microsoft to the commitments it has offered and ends the commission's investigation" into whether the company had abused its dominant position in the European marketplace.

A new "choice screen" will greet buyers when they configure for use over 100 million new personal computers available in Europe from March, with around 30 million new PC users per year affected over the deal's five-year term, Brussels said.

The decision concerns computers running Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7.

Existing computer owners are already able to download and install different browers on the market, but this decision marks a step-change in Europe with implications for Microsoft, the world's dominant computing company, in other regions.

"Such choice will not only serve to improve people's experience of the Internet now but also act as an incentive for web browser companies to innovate and offer people better browsers in the future," Kroes added.

Kroes said Microsoft was also publishing on its website "an undertaking whereby it commits to make far-reaching interoperability disclosures" concerning other software and applications which had also raised Brussels hackles.

Microsoft said in October that it was mounting "the single biggest legal commitment in the history of the software industry to promote inter-operability" between its products and those of rival developers.

The company said then that improved proposals for European consumers centred on applications that apply to Windows, Windows Server, Office, Exchange and SharePoint products.

In September 2007, Microsoft lost an appeal before Europe's second-highest court against a fine of nearly 500 million euros (more than 660 million dollars) that EU regulators slapped on the company in 2004 for abusing its dominant power, partly in the media players market.

In February 2008, the commission hit Microsoft with a further fine of almost 900 million euros for defying its 2004 ruling.

The commission threatened litigation on the browser issue in January, and Kroes stressed while announcing the deal that it will "review the commitments in two years".

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