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U.S. Firms Offer E.U. a Hand In Microsoft Antitrust Case

By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page E05

Several major technology companies are seeking to join the European Union's antitrust case against Microsoft Corp., dealing a setback to the software giant's strategy of making peace with industry brethren that had allied themselves with government regulators.

Companies including International Business Machines Corp., Oracle Corp., Nokia Corp., Red Hat Inc. and RealNetworks Inc. want to help E.U. antitrust enforcers defend their decision last year to require changes to Microsoft's dominant Windows operating system in Europe and to fine the company more than $600 million.

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Microsoft is appealing the decision, which forces it to provide two versions of Windows, one without its code for playing music and videos. The E.U. found that Microsoft's policy of integrating its media player into the ubiquitous Windows system put rival makers of media-playing software at a disadvantage.

The company also was required to disclose more of its code to rivals so that their software works better with Microsoft server systems, which power corporate networks. A European appeals court is expected to hear the case this fall.

If the court grants the request from the companies to join the case, it gives them access to case files and allows them to argue their position during the appeals hearing.

"Microsoft's claims that the commission stands naked and has little or no support from the industry are clearly wrong," said Thomas C. Vinje, a Brussels-based attorney who represents the European Committee for Interoperable Systems, a trade group that petitioned the court on behalf of the companies.

After the European Commission, the E.U.'s administrative arm, announced its decision to punish Microsoft, the software giant settled private claims with software maker Novell Inc. and with the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which represented several Microsoft antagonists.

Previously, Microsoft settled with Sun Microsystems Inc., whose initial complaints helped spark the E.U. case.

In addition to accepting cash payments, the companies agreed to withdraw from the E.U. case, which Microsoft hoped would help its cause.

But in December, an appeals court judge rejected Microsoft's request that the E.U. sanctions be set aside until its appeal is heard. No date for a court hearing has been set.

Microsoft General Counsel Bradford L. Smith said that the company was neither surprised nor concerned by the court petition, which was originally filed late last year.

He said that firms such as Oracle have consistently funded legal action against Microsoft around the world.

The Software & Information Industry Association, a trade group with many of the same members as the European interoperability group, already is a participant in the case on the side of the E.U.

"What we have is a list [of opponents] that continues to get shorter and now is in the low single digits," Smith said. "But it's not zero."

Any hopes Microsoft had that a new competition commissioner at the E.U. would change its approach to the case also appear to have dimmed.

Neelie Kroes, who replaced Mario Monti, has not changed course as the antitrust staff has pressed Microsoft to change how it is implementing the sanctions.

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