/ 27 April 2006

Microsoft spars with rivals over code access

Microsoft sparred with its rivals on Thursday about how much information it should give them to make servers more compatible as judges questioned both sides about what code could be divulged without giving away trade secrets.

Supporters of the European Commission in its antitrust fight with Microsoft told the 13 judges of the Court of First Instance that the software maker’s claims of interoperability between its Windows system and other companies’ servers are simply not accurate.

James Flynn, a lawyer for the European Committee for Interoperable Systems, an industry group that includes Sun Microsystems, IBM and Oracle, said Microsoft’s ”information is not kept secret because it is valuable. It is valuable because it is kept secret.”

Other commission proponents agreed.

”Microsoft could easily have provided us with a very large part of the information required by the commission … on to a single floppy disk,” said Andrew Tridgell, founder of the Samba Project.

Samba is an open-source and free software suite that offers file- and print-server services to users of Unix, Linux, IBM and OpenVMS that can interact with a Microsoft Windows client or server.

But Tridgell said that because of Microsoft’s reluctance to make available some of the information as ordered by the commission, Samba is always trailing.

”We’re forever relegated to playing catch-up,” he said. ”We are more than 10 years behind.”

Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft argued that the commission has forced it to hand over trade secrets to rivals, effectively giving them a ”free ride” on the work the company does to acquire new customers and develop new technologies.

Microsoft lawyer Ian Forrester rejected any suggestion that the company has deliberately exaggerated the importance of certain algorithms it would have to disclose.

Microsoft and EU officials are still discussing just what needed to be handed over, he said, explaining that Microsoft believes that to meet the terms of the commission order and hand over ”complete and accurate” information, it would have to give access to key parts of its code.

”We don’t believe it can be done without disclosing certain algorithms,” he told the court. The commission has never asked Microsoft to open up its source code — the recipe for Windows — but Microsoft offered earlier this year to grant some access to rivals under certain conditions if it would appease both EU and United States regulators.

Forrester said software engineers can work around the patented material if they want.

But Ronald Alepin, the former chief technology officer of Fujitsu Software and an expert witness for Microsoft’s rivals, said the company is wrong to claim that describing how its software works could help other software makers clone Microsoft products.

”It is axiomatic in our industry that specifications, properly written, do not reveal the design and should not reveal the design,” he said. ”We just want to be able to connect.”

The commission has said the degree of interoperability Microsoft allows is simply not viable for most customers and ”effective competition” no longer exists in the market. Microsoft has insisted that the survival of its rivals and the emergence of new companies prove the competition is strong.

The world’s largest software maker says it has the right to guard its valuable intellectual property, and maintains that it has worked strenuously to comply with the 2004 EU ruling that told it to pay a record â,¬497-million fine.

The ruling was handed down after a five-year investigation concluded that Microsoft had taken advantage of its position as the leading supplier of operating systems to damage rivals who offered server software and media player programs.

While a court decision on the ruling is not due for months, a decision backing the commission could force Microsoft to change the way it does business in the future and endorse the EU’s ability to hold back aggressive corporate behaviour.

An appeal is not certain since Microsoft would need strong legal arguments to protest the ruling to the EU’s highest court, the European Court of Justice. — Sapa-AP