Microsoft Office's ODF support might change the EC's mind

Given the fact that the next changes to Microsoft Office will enable consumers to choose which native format it uses, the European Commission may find itself with no alternative but to reconsider its investigation into unfair competition allegations.

In a statement this morning from Brussels, the European Commission said it will consider whether Microsoft's move on Wednesday to embrace OpenDocument format addresses a complaint raised January 14 that the company continues to unfairly make it difficult for others to compete.

Two organizations -- the makers of the Opera browser and the European Committee for Interoperable Systems -- played a role in the EC opening up the newest leg of its investigation. Ostensibly, that complaint centered on Internet Explorer, and issues that had been raised as early as the mid-1990s during IE's browser war with Netscape Navigator. Nonetheless, the EC's statement this morning hyperlinked directly to its January 14 notice that it would revisit a multitude of interoperability complaints against the company.

The EC's statement reads in its entirety, "The European Commission has taken note of Microsoft's announcement on 21st May concerning supporting ODF in Office. The Commission would welcome any step that Microsoft took towards genuine interoperability, more consumer choice and less vendor lock-in. In its ongoing antitrust investigation concerning interoperability with Microsoft Office, the Commission will investigate whether the announced support of ODF (OpenDocument format) in Office leads to better interoperability and allows consumers to process and exchange their documents with the software product of their choice."

One portion of the ECIS' part of the January complaint does refer to whether Microsoft may have been attempting some exclusionary practices with regard to its Office suite.

"As regards interoperability, in its Microsoft judgment of 17 September 2007, the Court of First Instance confirmed the principles that must be respected by dominant companies as regards interoperability disclosures. In the complaint by ECIS, Microsoft is alleged to have illegally refused to disclose interoperability information across a broad range of products, including information related to its Office suite, a number of its server products, and also in relation to the so called .NET Framework. The Commission's examination will therefore focus on all these areas, including the question whether Microsoft's new file format Office Open XML, as implemented in Office, is sufficiently interoperable with competitors' products."

Microsoft has issued no statement on the matter today -- and with it being the Friday before Memorial Day, is not expected to; and the ECIS issued no statement as well. However, Marino Marcich who leads the ODF Alliance -- a group of governments, organizations, and vendors supporting software that treats ODF as its native format -- expressed skepticism that Microsoft's pledge last Wednesday was anything but a marketing ploy.

"The proof will be whether and when Microsoft's promised support for ODF is on par with its support for its own format," stated Marcich. "Governments will be looking for actual results, not promises in press releases...Clearly this announcement reflects the strong demand from customers worldwide, especially governments, for access to ODF, a truly universal, open standards-based file format. Microsoft continues to answer with a steady stream of promises. However, until Microsoft enables Office users to create and save in ODF by default as easily and fully as in Microsoft's own formats, governments will continue to adopt a 'buyer beware' attitude. Because Microsoft has a history of broken promises, no one should celebrate this news until we see what is actually done and how quickly it is put in place."

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