EU’s Antitrust Case Against Microsoft Could Mean Endless ‘Crapware’ on PCs

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The European Union’s antitrust case against Microsoft Corp. over Internet Explorer could be a nightmare for small- and medium-sized computer makers and set a dangerous precedent, a longtime trade group ally of Microsoft said.

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The result could be anarchy. “Users don’t want a computer that comes with 700 default setting choices,” Liebeler said, adding that PC makers are already aware of users’ resistance to bundled software, called “crapware” by some wags.

Microsoft is a member of the CompTIA, as is Intel Corp., “and every name on the world’s leading OEMs,” said Liebeler, who declined to name other companies. “The OEMs are driving this,” he added, but admitted that Microsoft had a part to play in its objections to the commission’s case. “Microsoft alerted us that there were small- and medium-sized OEMS that we were unaware of who oppose this,” he acknowledged.

CompTIA made available a 10-page appendix to its objection that listed 90 European computer makers that believe the EU’s anticipated action would be detrimental to their business.

The commission charged Microsoft last January with shielding IE from competition by bundling the browser with Windows, following up on a December 2007 complaint by Norwegian browser builder Opera.

Since January, several other browser makers, including Mozilla and Google, have joined the case as third-party participants. In April, a trade group that includes other Microsoft rivals, including Adobe Systems Inc., IBM and Oracle Corp., were also given access to the allegations.

Last week, Microsoft canceled an oral hearing set for June 3-5, citing scheduling conflicts that would prevent senior regulators from attending. Liebeler said the lack of a hearing probably wouldn’t make a difference in the final decision. “I think that [the commission] doesn’t work with the same transparency as a U.S. court,” he said.

Measures that the EU is considering, Liebeler said, would also require Microsoft to redesign Windows so that IE code could be disabled. It could also demand that OEMs only install modified versions of the operating system that offers such a locking mechanism.

Microsoft has added a “kill switch” of sorts to Windows 7 that will let users prevent IE8 from running. Some rivals, including Opera, however, have said that the Windows 7 changes were insufficient.

Other groups have also recently weighed in on the antitrust case. Today, the Brussels-based IT lobbying group PIN-SME blasted a rival, the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), for taking the Microsoft’s side, and said small businesses “benefit only when a variety of open and standards-compliant browsers exist in a market of vigorous and undistorted competition.”

PIN-SME had tossed its support behind the EU last month, while ACT had claimed earlier this week that the EU’s likely remedies could break third-party applications written for Windows. “There is a significant risk that a broad range of applications written for the Windows operating system would be ‘broken’ by a requirement to remove or disable pieces of IE code,” ACT said.

ACT represents about 3,000 software developers, systems integrators, and IT consulting and training firms. Microsoft is a member.

“The commission should dismiss this statement and do a proper investigation of the impact on OEMs,” said Liebeler. “If you can’t come up with a remedy that’s better than the current situation, you shouldn’t do it.”

The commission has not set a timeline for its final decision.