The European Court's ruling against Microsoft could give IT departments greater choice in the tools they use to manage Windows.
The European Court of First Instance (CFI) last week upheld the European Commission's 2004 decision to fine Microsoft £497m for anti-competitive practices.
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The CFI agreed with the commission's reasoning that Microsoft had abused its dominant position by bundling the Windows-client PC operating system and Windows Media Player, and refused to supply its competitors with "interoperability information".
The decision has been welcomed by industry analysts as a positive move. They predict that the ruling will result in a greater choice of tools for end-users, and will make it easier for them to integrate third-party software into Windows.
Microsoft sets out the terms for interoperability through a licensing programme called Microsoft Communication Protocol Program (MCPP). This provides a way for third-party software firms to create server software that interoperates with Windows systems and other Microsoft software using Windows communications protocols.
The MCPP is a sub-set of a more detailed protocol licensing scheme called the Microsoft Work Group Server Protocol Program (WSPP), which provides deeper access into Windows. It contains the main protocols and knowledge necessary to control Microsoft Windows Active Directory.
"This ruling paves the way for competitors to license the WSPP," said Richard Jones, vice-president at analyst firm Burton Group.
This could solve problems that businesses frequently encounter when running Unix systems alongside Microsoft Exchange e-mail servers. Microsoft Exchange and Unix use incompatible directory services to authenticate users, which makes linking the two technologies difficult.
"Businesses that run directory services from Sun, IBM and Novell need to implement complex synchronisation in order to run Active Directory. Since it is hard to manage two directories, it becomes a management nightmare," Jones said.
Managing mixed IT environments of this type would be greatly simplified if the Unix directory services were able to use WSPP protocols, he said.
The decision could also lead to improvements in the way third-party software integrates with Microsoft products. In a paper covering the Microsoft case, Christos Genakos, a research associate at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, said that with better disclosure, rivals will be able to compete on a level playing field.
Dale Vile, research director at analyst firm Freeform Dynamics, said, "What the court is essentially saying is that it is not acceptable for Microsoft to embed a hidden or prohibitively expensive programming interface into a Windows server."
The decision should prevent Microsoft from using its proprietary knowledge to enable its management tools to manage Windows servers more effectively than popular third-party products.
Matthew Szulik, chairman and CEO of Red Hat, said, "In our business, interoperability information is critically important and cannot simply be withheld to exclude all competition."
But these benefits could come at a price. Amanda McPherson, director of marketing at The Linux Foundation, said Microsoft could increase the cost of its software to recoup legal costs. "Ultimately, we expect that customers' refusal to absorb these costs will be seen in the choices they make, and will force Microsoft to support open standards and open interoperability."
microsoft's response to the european court of first instance's ruling
The European Court of First Instance last week rejected Microsoft's claims that the degree of interoperability required by the European Commission would enable Microsoft's competitors to clone or reproduce its products.
"The commission was correct to conclude that the server operating systems of Microsoft's competitors must be able to interoperate with Windows domain architecture on an equal footing with Windows operating systems if they are to be capable of being marketed viably," it said.
Brad Smith, senior vice-president, general counsel, corporate secretary, legal and corporate affairs at Microsoft, said, "We are 100% committed to comply with the CFI."
"With respect to interoperability, a lot of work has been done, some progress has been made, but some issues remain open. It has not been an easy process to publish the technical documentation required by the commission. I believe today we have an accurate technical specification that is being used by licensees, and I hope more licensees will use this in the months ahead."