It's not all about the money.
The recent remedies announced in the EU to counter Microsoft's illegal and anti-competitive behavior have sparkled a wealth of comments in the media, but I would like to try and offer another point of view, because I think some of the most important consequences of what is happening have been up to now somewhat overlooked.
Many analysts have concluded that, despite Microsoft's announced appeal, and the US government's crying foul, there is nothing in Mario Monti's decision that can have any sizeable effect on the software giant's behavior.
It is true that the record 497.2 M euro fine, even if enormous for human standards, is far from the maximum amount that the EU was entitled to impose, and is pocket change for the 50B cash pile MS owns.
It is also true that, unlike what IBM did back in the 1980's in a very similar situation, MS is simply not going to play by the rules and properly open to competitors its interfaces, as their control is vital to maintain and expand its monopoly.
And it is true, again, that obliging Microsoft to offer a version of Windows without Media Player, but with no obligation to make it cheaper than the full version, will probably have little effect too, as long as the consumer is unable even to know the price of the bundled software, let alone vote with his feet by choosing to buy his preferred computer without paying for Microsoft software preinstalled on it (1).
But I feel a bit uneasy with the bottom-line: after the predictably ineffectual settlement hastily signed by the DoJ under the Bush administration, voiding 4 years of investigation done under the Clinton administration, our last hope to restore competition was again the EU, like in the 1984 IBM case (2); is it really sane to just sit here and be content with the fact that, in the current state of affairs not even the EU can effectively force MS to respect the law?
It is not simply a matter of EU vs US power-games: we have a company which is a monopoly, has behaved and continues to behave illegally (this is said by the EU now, but has be said before in the US, even by the Court of Appeals that overturned Jackson's remedies), has an impressive track record in stifling competition (3), heftily over-charging consumers (MS is actually spending much more than the announced EU fine just in quietly settling out of court with consumer association all around the US (4) ), selling bad software that has turned the Internet (not a MS invention, unlike what some people seem to believe) into a security nightmare, perverting open standards (5), preventing interoperability with competitors, and still get away untouched, basically because their monopoly on the operating systems effectively protects them from any but the most radical remedy, and the amount of money they subtracted to the consumers over the two last decades is so big that they can buy everything, afford to pay any fine, and effectively call themselves out from the competition game.
And this is the company we should trust for providing the pervasive technology on which we (6) are building the society of the digital age? Our national security, social security, health care, education, entertainment, economy, air traffic control systems, all in the hands of a single private company that is unable to whisper "I'm sorry" even when caught with the hands in the honey pot?
This is a somber, sad, desperate perspective, not something one should be happy about, and not even MS shareholders should forget that the issues at stake here are far reaching, and very important for the future of our societies.
It's not all about the money.
Not this time.
(1) See more on this at http://www.detaxewindows.org.
(2) On 1 August 1984, the Commission accepted a unilateral undertaking from IBM to provide other manufacturers with the technical interface information needed to permit competitive products to be used with IBM's then most powerful range of computers, the System/370. The Commission thereupon suspended the proceedings under Article86 which it had initiated against IBM in December 1980. The IBM undertaking (8) also contains a commitment relating to SNA formats and protocols (Bulletin of the European Communities 101984, point 3.4.1). See http://europa.eu.int/comm/competition/antitrust/legislation/apart86b_en.html
(3) For an example in a zillion, look at the anti-Lindows lawsuits ongoing worldwide today.
(4) See for example the 1.1B settlement in California last summer reported in http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/biztech/01/13/settle.microsoft.ap
(5) See the Kerberos case, for one example in a thousand, as reported in http://zdnet.com.com/2100-11-520685.html?legacy=zdnn
(6) Here, ``we does not stand for ``europeans, but really for ``all countries in the world'', including the US.