EU competition chief advocates open standards

BRUSSELS – Europe’s competition commissioner Neelie Kroes has delivered a thinly veiled warning to Microsoft that the software giant’s behind-the-scenes maneuverings to secure industry-wide standard status for its document format, Office Open XML, “risk falling foul of the competition rules.”

She also appeared to endorse open software standards in a speech given during a conference on standardization hosted by the IT industry group Open Forum Europe.

“Choosing open standards is a very smart business decision indeed,” she told attendees this week.

She didn’t mention Microsoft by name once in her speech, but the 25 minute-long delivery was littered with references to the software giant’s former practice of withholding interoperability information about its near ubiquitous software products and its year-long campaign to secure ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standard status for OOXML.

Standards are “the foundation of interoperability,” she said, acknowledging that they can be both proprietary and non-proprietary.

After pointing out the important role proprietary standards played in developing Europe’s second and third-generation mobile phone technologies, she went on to warn that standards developed and coveted by one market player only can be “problematic, having none of the safeguards of disclosure that standards bodies typically require.”

In a jab at the ISO decision to grant OOXML standard status, Kroes said: “I fail to see the interest of consumers in including proprietary technology in standards when there are no clear and demonstrable benefits over non-proprietary alternatives.”

“If voting in the standard-setting context is influenced less by the technical merits of the technology, but rather by side agreements, inducements, package deals, reciprocal agreements, or commercial pressure then these risk falling foul of the competition rules,” Kroes said.

Other speakers at the conference were more direct in their criticism of Microsoft’s behavior and ISO’s decision to approve OOXML. Christian Ude, the mayor of Munich, a city in southern Germany that has embraced open-source software throughout its operations, said that by granting OOXML standard status “it would appear this doesn’t promote competition, it might even obstruct it.”

One danger for public organizations from the creation of a second document format standard to sit alongside ODF (OpenDocument Format), which is already an international ISO standard, is that “scarce IT resources are needed to support the second standard,” Ude said.

He added that the presence of a second document format standard will also cause “delays, and make the work of IT staff more complicated and expensive.”

Microsoft declined to comment on Kroes’ speech. Microsoft was found guilty of abusing the dominant position of its Windows operating system by the European Commission in 2004. It was fined heavily and ordered to reveal important interoperability information about the OS to allow rivals to compete with it on fair terms.

At the beginning of this year, the commission opened a fresh antitrust case against the software giant, focusing mainly on its Office software products. As part of the new case, the commission in February sent a confidential request for information to all the national divisions of the ISO in Europe asking for information about the ongoing process of assessing OOXML.

“In your opinion, have there been any irregularities or attempts to influence the debate or vote on the ECMA 376 proposal as regard your organization? If so please provide details and any relevant facts,” the commission wrote in the letter, a copy of which was viewed by IDG.

ECMA 376 is the title under which Microsoft submitted OOXML for consideration by ISO. Two months after these letters were sent out, ISO went ahead and granted OOXML standard status, amid widespread claims of foul play.

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