Microsoft/EU Hearing Turns to Competitive Issues

On day four of the Microsoft antitrust hearings in the European Union (EU) Court of First Instance, the debate turned to esoteric and secretive information that Microsoft is trying to keep from its competitors. Microsoft is trying to limit the amount of technical information it provides to competitors--a major concern of the 2004 EU antitrust ruling. Microsoft rivals are arguing that the software giant is simply trying to harm competition and force its rivals to take the time and effort to reverse-engineer their software interfaces.

"The information isn't kept secret because it's valuable," said James Flynn, a lawyer for the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), an industry group representing IBM, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems. "It's valuable because it's kept secret." A lawyer representing the open-source Samba project, which seeks to make Microsoft's networking functionality interoperable with open-source solutions, said that Microsoft could have "provided us with a very large part of the information required by the commission ... on a single floppy disk." Instead, Microsoft has fought the information-disclosure requirement for two years. Meanwhile, Samba lags behind Microsoft's networking implementation by "more than 10 years," according to Samba project founder Andrew Tridgell.

Microsoft says it hasn't exaggerated the importance of keeping some information secret. "We don't believe \[we can meet this EU requirement\] without disclosing certain algorithms," Microsoft attorney Ian Forrestor told the panel of 13 judges. However, Microsoft was quick to offer up the entire source code to Windows, which the EU never asked for.

Curiously, it was a witness from the prosecution, an engineer from Fujitsu, who cut to the heart of the matter. Microsoft's rivals, he said, "just want to be able to connect" to Microsoft's products. Good documentation would describe how to make these connections without revealing how Microsoft accomplished it through software. "It's axiomatic in our industry that specifications, properly written, don't reveal the design and shouldn't reveal the design," he said. In other words, Microsoft can protect its patented and copyrighted software code all it wants; competitors simply want the information necessary to interoperate with Microsoft's software.