European competition commissioner demands open standards

Europe's competition commissioner Neelie Kroes delivered a thinly veiled warning to Microsoft today (10 June) that the software giant's behind-the-scenes maneuvering to secure industry wide standard status for its document format, Office Open XML earlier this year "risk falling foul of the competition rules".

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Europe's competition commissioner Neelie Kroes delivered a thinly veiled warning to Microsoft today (10 June) that the software giant's behind-the-scenes maneuvering to secure industry wide standard status for its document format, Office Open XML earlier this year "risk falling foul of the competition rules".

She also appeared to endorse open software standards in a speech given during a conference on standardization hosted by the IT industry group Open Forum Europe.

"Choosing open standards is a very smart business decision indeed," she told attendees.

She didn't mention Microsoft by name once in her speech, but the 25 minute-long delivery was littered with references to the software giant's former practice of withholding interoperability information about its near ubiquitous software products and its year-long campaign to secure ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standard status for OOXML.

Standards are "the foundation of interoperability," she said, acknowledging that they can be both proprietary and non-proprietary.

After pointing out the important role proprietary standards played in developing Europe's second and third-generation mobile phone technologies, she went on to warn that standards developed and coveted by one market player only can be "problematic, having none of the safeguards of disclosure that standards bodies typically require."

In a jab at the ISO decision to grant OOXML standard status, Kroes said "I fail to see the interest of consumers in including proprietary technology in standards when there are no clear and demonstrable benefits over non-proprietary alternatives."

"If voting in the standard-setting context is influenced less by the technical merits of the technology, but rather by side agreements, inducements, package deals, reciprocal agreements, or commercial pressure then these risk falling foul of the competition rules," Kroes said.

Other speakers at the conference were more direct in their criticism of Microsoft's behaviour and ISO's decision to approve OOXML.

Christian Ude, the mayor of Munich, a city in southern Germany that has embraced open-source software throughout its operations, said that by granting OOXML standard status "it would appear this doesn't promote competition, it might even obstruct it."
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One danger for public organizations from the creation of a second document format standard to sit alongside ODF (OpenDocument Format), which is already an international ISO standard, is that "scarce IT resources are needed to support the second standard," Ude said.

He added that the presence of a second document format standard will also cause "delays, and make the work of IT staff more complicated and expensive."

Microsoft declined to comment on Kroes' speech.