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Microsoft Crafts Backup Plan

By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2004; Page E05

Microsoft Corp. officials said yesterday that the company has spent millions of dollars preparing a version of its Windows operating system without a program for playing digital music and videos, in the event it loses its bid to postpone antitrust sanctions ordered by European authorities.

At hearings in Luxembourg scheduled for Thursday and Friday, Microsoft will try to convince a European Union judge that an order to decouple the Windows Media Player from the operating system would hobble the performance of Windows. The company wants this and other E.U. mandates postponed until it exhausts its appeals in the European court system, a process that could take years.

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But Microsoft officials said yesterday in Brussels, where most E.U. agencies are based, that if the postponement is not granted, it would release a version of Windows for European markets without the media player.

"Obviously we will comply with any requirements or court orders," said Dirk Delmartino, a company spokesman.

The news represents something of a turnabout for the software giant, which has long argued in U.S. courts and to European regulators that forcing it to remove specific applications from Windows would do irreparable damage to the operating system, because various programs depend on each other to function.

In March, E.U. antitrust authorities decided to require two versions of Windows after determining that Microsoft was illegally using its Windows domination to push out competitors in the media-player market, one of the hottest sectors of computer use by consumers.

By bundling the media player with Windows, E.U. regulators found, Microsoft had an unfair advantage against rivals such as RealNetworks Inc., which primarily have to rely on users to separately download their media-playing software.

The E.U. hopes to level the playing field by making it easier for competitors to strike deals with computer makers to put their media players on the versions of Windows that don't contain Microsoft's player.

In addition to the media-player mandate, the E.U.'s competition commission also slapped Microsoft with the largest antitrust fine ever, roughly $600 million, and ordered it to disclose more of its code to rival makers of network operating systems so that the alternatives would work smoothly with Windows machines.

Microsoft's Delmartino said the stripped-down version of Windows "will not work as a normal version," but he did not specify what would and would not function.


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