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EU analyzes Microsoft’s promise to support rival open document format

EU regulators said Thursday they would study Microsoft Corp.’s announcement that its software update next year will work with rival document formats to see if it would allow customers to use a wider range of software.

The European Commission is again investigating whether Microsoft has illegally refused to supply competitors with information they need to make products compatible with Microsoft Windows – the operating system used by most computers worldwide.

This possibility of further fines comes on the heels of EU antitrust action against Microsoft, which resulted in the company handing over US$2.63 billion (euro1.7 billion) in penalties.

Microsoft said Wednesday that it would start allowing Office 2007 users to save files in the OpenDocument Format, or ODF, when it releases a service pack 2 update in the first half of 2009 and set ODF as a default storage format.

The EU’s executive arm said it had ”taken note” of the announcement and ”would welcome any step that Microsoft took toward 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 in Office leads to better interoperability and allows consumers to process and exchange their documents with the software product of their choice,” it said.

The probe sees the EU wade into a dispute between Microsoft and open source developers backed by International Business Machines Corp. by looking into Microsoft’s open format for archived documents – Office Open XML, or OOXML.

Microsoft said it developed the format to offer a more useful and varied alternative to the nonproprietary OpenDocument Format created by open source developers and used by IBM, Sun Microsystems and others.

Microsoft said it continues to work with the open source community on OOXML-ODF translator and recognized that customers cared most about ”real-world interoperability in the marketplace.”

Critics of OOXML say it locks out competitors, giving Microsoft customers no choice but to keep buying Microsoft programs forever. The open source community claims that Microsoft is trying to supplant ODF and stem the potential threat of open source software eating into its market share.

The Washington, D.C.-based ODF Alliance said it was skeptical of Microsoft’s promise of support for ODF, saying the proof would be whether the support would equal to that offered to OOXML.

”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,” it said in a statement.

The European Committee for Interoperable Systems, or ECIS – the group that triggered the EU’s new probe by complaining about OOXML shutting out ODF – alleged that the Microsoft announcement was ”still playing for time to further consolidate its super-dominant position.”

”It is particularly striking that all of Microsoft’s latest policy statements on interoperability are still in the future tense, as though these were difficult technical objectives,” it said. ”They are not.”

ECIS represents IBM, Nokia Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., RealNetworks Inc. and Oracle Corp. among others.

Despite a chorus of complaints, OOXML was last month approved as an international standard that paves the way for it to be picked up by the IT departments of governments and large corporations.

Microsoft’s long antitrust battle with Brussels looks set to roll on after its appeal this month of a US$1.3 billion (euro899 million) fine the European Commission imposed in February because the company had failed to obey a 2004 antitrust order telling it to open up more to rivals.

The software giant last year lost an EU court challenge against regulators’ 2004 decision. It promised to drop further appeals to that case and abide by the judgment.

The EU’s antitrust chief, Neelie Kroes, said a precedent had been set by Microsoft for its future behavior in other areas.

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