No Country for Microsoft's Men
By E.K.Bensah II
There is a stalker loose on the online world. It is going round killing competition and perpetuating monopolies through dirty tactics of vote-rigging. It has a remarkable ability to pay lip-service to development of any standards, whilst consistently reluctant in sharing what it knows. Last week, it became the victim of yet-another fine from no less than the Brussels-based European Commission.
It's Microsoft again.
Last week, the EU fined the software giant a record 899 million euros ($1.35billion) for using high prices to offset software competition. This fine, the latest sanction in the long-running battle, brings to €1.68bn the total sum that the executive wing of the EU has brought to bear on the software giant. And it is not without good reason: Microsoft has – for four years since the fine was slapped on it for abusing its 95 percent dominance of PC operating systems through Windows—defied the EU by failing to pay.
EC Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes maintains in a statement that "Microsoft was the first company in 50 years of EU competition policy that the Commission has had to fine for failure to comply with an anti-trust decision." She adds: "talk is cheap; flouting the rules is expensive."
While observers and insiders alike may feel this is nothing more than the European Commission punishing Microsoft for being the market leader, there is a phalanx of committed people emerging from that ever-nebulous online world who argue to the contrary—that though the fine might have been steep, it sure as serves Microsoft right.
Microsoft may be unpopular, but it's got a certain hold over us. None of us is deluded into thinking that the ability to use Microsoft packages does not make life easier for us. Or is it merely because we have been so used to it? The Free and Open Source Foundation would beg to differ. It, along with many in the open source software community, already have a bone to pick with Microsoft on account of the manner in which it is less than forthcoming on disclosing the codes it uses for its software.
Already, as Reuters reports, rival makers of work group servers, which operate printers and sign-ons for small office groups, have seen their markets diminish considerably because Microsoft stopped providing information they would have needed to hook up to Windows office machines.
This below-the-belt practice has only gone to consolidate the image of an insensitive giant that needs it wings clipped.
It will be re-called that the 2004 case for which non-compliance has landed Microsoft this heavy fine stems from the fact that Microsoft had been tying its Windows Media Player to the then-version of Windows it was using. Norway-based Opera, also another popular browser, complained to the EC that Microsoft had done the same thing with Internet Explorer.
Actions, not Words
As Microsoft has painfully realised, reneging on a four-year decision by claiming you will pay is not just setting a bad example for a company of its stature, but it's also terribly expensive. As to whether it will get about paying as quickly as possible is moot. Either way, the above-case has shown that there is something visceral in the company that chooses to do things that make it unpopular. Many people can only deduce this to be manifestations of an unprecedented rapaciousness. They would not be far off the mark.
At the time of writing, there is a closed-door meeting hosted by the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) in Geneva, where the said-organisation was supposed to assist ISO members address serious concerns that prevented them from approving Microsoft's Office OpenXML (OOXML) document format (compatible with Microsoft Office 2003, 2007 and XP file formats) as a standard approved by ISO last September.
The genesis of it all is that there already exists a format—the one document format (ODF), which has been approved by ISO. Now this approval is important, because an increasing number of national governments and public authorities worldwide are committing to use only ISO-standard-approved products—which ODF is. Failure for Microsoft to ratify its version of OpenXML would mean that many would wave bye-bye to Microsoft's products, opting naturally for the standard. This would translate into falling profits—something completely anathema to a big-business venture like Microsoft.
So if that meant that Microsoft would use unorthodox measures—such as in August 2007, when a good 25 local partners that had not participated in discussions over OOXML paid their admission fee and gave OOXML a resounding corresponding number of votes -- all after Microsoft bussed them to a meeting in Sweden over the ratification of OOXML—it would do so!
Despite all this, in September 2007, ISO would fail to approve OOXML as an ISO-standard—much to the delight and glee of Google which promptly praised the move, saying: "our engineers conducted an independent analysis of the OOXML specification and found several areas of concern, which we communicated both to the ISO and to the public." It ended: "technical standards should be arrived at transparently, openly, and based on technical merit." Google has good reason to explain this development away, for it maintains that there is an already-"high degree of interoperability" and "wide support" for the ODF format, which is already operating in Gmail's Google Docs.
In February this year, Microsoft was, yet again, found wanting by the European Commission over the issue of OOXML. The anti-trust arm of the Commission has already begun formal probes against the company. In the first case, the EC said it was investigating a complaint filed by the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS) alleging how Redmond, Microsoft's headquarters in Oregon, had refused to divulge information about interoperability on a gamut of Microsoft's products. Furthermore, the EC said that it would be scrutinising the OpenOXML on the basis that it fails to work with competitors. They say bad things happen in threes—and this drama is no exception for the third and final probe resides on the EC investigating the role of the software giant in this ISO debate.
When all is said and done in Geneva, what will matter will be the voting. After the meeting, attending national delegations – as well as fifty others that took part in the vote last year—will have until 29 March to shift their positions, so that the Redmond-based giant might get a look-in towards a two-thirds majority. You can imagine that Google has clamped down hard against any approval—along with the open source community.
In the long run, whatever happens in Geneva will matter a great deal to the rest of us consumers, because it will underscore the need to practice the "eternal vigilance" Osagyefo Dr.Kwame Nkrumah talked about in all our dealings. It is frankly ironic that in the so-called information society that we are purported to live in, issues like these assume a Byzantian feel, being further reduced to issues worthy for geeks. For example, had it not been for interested parties who passed much of this information to me, I would have been none the wiser.
There will be blood
On more substantive issues, as to whether Microsoft will naturally fall from grace or be proverbially pushed over the edge by steep fines from the European Commission remains to be seen. Ultimately, the impact of these developments would depend on how we, as consumers, here in Ghana and beyond, respond.
Opera, for example, from this month will start using Google as its default search engine on its ever-popular opera browser for mobile. The release on its website of 27 February reads: "Google has been the default search option on Opera's desktop browser for seven years. This new mobile collaboration covers all global territories except Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, and includes all of Opera's standard mobile Web browsers". What is perhaps implicit in the news is the fact that despite the erstwhile collaboration on the desktop browser, Opera is choosing to link to Google in response to the Microsoft-Yahoo saga a few weeks ago. By cementing its stance vis-à-vis Microsoft, the yawning gap between itself and the software giant will be clearer.
As for the rest of us, the atavistic tendency of Ghanaians to accept all that comes from the West as the best will present challenges on combating the growing menace that is Microsoft. As long as there exists no real online regulator of the virtual world—save the increasing presence of the EC—it is clear there will be battles… and blood. It probably behooves us to become passive resistors, by boycotting Microsoft goods, where necessary.
They say you don't kick a dog when it's down. The proverb scribes probably forgot to add "even if it is a multi-billion-dollar one". What is crystal-clear in what appears to be cries of blue murder against Microsoft is this: as long as the European Commission is here to stay and as long as virtual expansionist appetites continue to know no bounds – whether it finds expression in a Microsoft-Yahoo hostile merger, or Microsoft's strategy to extend market dominance through the use of Vista—reputed to be riddled with more holes than a Swiss cheese; or vote-rigging in Geneva to have its Microsoft Office standard passed at an international body—we are quickly and surely being reminded that the online terrain will be no country for Microsoft's greedy men.