22 December 2005

Microsoft: Same as It Ever Was

So Microsoft is up to its old, foxy tricks.

The European Commission is threatening the company with daily fines of "up to" two million Euros. Leaving aside the fact that "up to" includes small numbers like ten, even if Microsoft were fined the maximum amount every day, its huge cash mountain means it could happily tell the Commission to take a running jump for several decades at least.

Of course, it won't come to that. By refusing to comply with the Commission's requests, Microsoft is playing its usual game of chicken. If it wins, its gets away scot-free; but even if it loses, it can still get everything it needs.

The reason for this can be found at the end of the document linked to above. Microsoft is (cunningly) digging its feet in over the first of two issues: "complete and accurate interface documentation". The second issues concerns "the obligation for Microsoft to make the interoperability information available on reasonable terms" as the Commission press release puts it.

The giveaway here is the phrase "on reasonable terms". Back in 2001, the very guardian of the Web, the World Wide Web Consortium, proposed adopting a new patent policy framework that would allow its recommendations to be implemented using "reasonably and non-discriminatory" (RAND) licensing terms. However, as people soon pointed out, this would effectively lock out open source implementations, since RAND terms might easily be incompatible with popular licences (notably the GPL, the cornerstone of the free software world).

After a fairly bloody fight within the cyber corridors of power, good sense prevailed, and the final recommendation came down squarely in favour of royalty-free licensing: "The goal of this policy is to assure that Recommendations produced under this policy can be implemented on a Royalty-Free (RF) basis."

So all Microsoft has to do to stymie its greatest rival - open source software - is to accede to the European Commission's request and graciously adopt "reasonable terms" for access to its interfaces - reasonable, non-discrimatory and completely incompatible with free software licences.

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