24 Dec 2004

Europe Breaks Windows

The year is coming to an end on an amazing note. The decision of the European Court of First Instance to deny Microsoft a stay of the relief ordered by the European Commission, as a result of its findings of competition law violations, is a demonstration of European determination not to surrender to Microsoft as two successive US administrations have done.

The Commission’s order requires the distribution of previously trade-secret information to competitors seeking to interoperate with Windows, and also requires Microsoft to offer a version of Windows XP in Europe that has no bundled Media Player.

Taken by themselves, neither of these steps is particularly dangerous to Microsoft’s failing operating system franchise. When we see the mechanisms whereby technical information necessary to interoperation is actually made available, they will no doubt be intended to prevent free software developers from taking much advantage of the opportunity. Unless the Commission and the courts are even more unremitting than they have been so far, Microsoft will manage to withhold information from free software developers through imposition of fees, or license requirements incompatible with free software production and distribution.

The unbundling of the Windows Media Player, too, is at first sight a merely symbolic order. Almost all computer manufacturers in Europe will prefer to take the higher cost of the bundle in order to pass to their customers what customers have grown to expect. Real Networks, which might profit from the relief awarded, is unlikely to be able to provide a replacement for the Media Player at a lower price than the one Microsoft will set. But even the semblance of competition has been hard to preserve. Real Networks is the sole remaining plaintiff unburied and unbought in Microsoft’s recent campaign to eviscerate the European lawsuit by settling with its competitors. Its campaign involved not only the payment of more than half a billion dollars to Sun, but also the almost unbelievable purchase for $20 million of a hostile US trade association, the Computer Communications Industry Association, including a $9.75 million personal payment to the Association’s Executive Director, Ed Black.

But despite the thinly-disguised bribery and the minimalism of the relief, the European Court’s refusal of a stay pending appeals, which may consume the next five years, has shattered Microsoft’s long-term strategy of bundling application function into the OS. The success of Firefox has shown that bundling has high technical costs: a browser tightly integrated into the OS cannot be maintained or upgraded rapidly enough to meet evolving user expectations and concerns about privacy and security in the fast-changing web. The European order now shows that bundling has potentially prohibitive legal costs as well. The Commission was not exactly speedy in bringing its investigation to a conclusion, but the denial of stay pending appeal means that Windows XP loses its integrity under legal scrutiny before the availability of Longhorn: Microsoft can never again assume that its product bundling choices will be effectively unreviewable within the product’s lifetime.

From both a legal and a technical standpoint, accordingly, the monopoly’s core strategy for defense of the OS has failed. As individual and corporate users around the world find that Open Office and Firefox running under Windows provide better features and reliability than the monopoly products, at zero cost, the migration path to free software is becoming clear: install crucial application-layer code, including browser and office suite, first under Windows; then, when users and service organizations feel comfortable, shift the OS kernel underneath. As the heavyweight desktop managers KDE and GNOME converge towards a look and feel that Windows users find familiar, the user’s fear of change, which was always the monopoly’s greatest protection, ceases to constrain the move to better, cheaper, more agile software that is also free as in freedom.

Of course, a single bad day in Luxembourg hardly disposes of the monopoly forever. Billions of ill-gotten dollars remain available for summoning to the task of retarding and eliminating freedom. Patent aggression—though fraught with legal difficulties of its own—remains an inevitable course of action for a monopoly with its back to the wall. But the coalition that now embraces not only the Free World, but also the globe’s major IT vendors, the government of Brazil and the regulators of the European Union, has put together what it takes to win.

The forthcoming failure of the proprietary software monopoly is an epochal moment in the history of Western culture. The free exchange of information that characterized Western science since Galileo will now be shown to be the most effective and most ethical system for the production of information technology as well. As we come to the end of another remarkable year in the march towards freedom, the world is ever more sure that Free Software Matters.

This column was first published in the UK in Linux User. It is also available in PostScript and PDF formats.

permalink | columns/lu | 2004.12.24-00:00.00

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