A group of Microsoft Corp.'s rivals filed a complaint with the European Commission on Wednesday, alleging its business practices threatened to deny real choice among competing software products.
The European Committee for Interoperable Systems which includes International Business Machines Corp., Oracle Corp., RealNetworks Inc., Nokia Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. said it was asking EU regulators to end practices that reinforced Microsoft's monopolies and extended its market dominance into current and future products.
"We are at a crossroads," the group said in a statement. "Will one dominant player be permitted to control those conditions, or will the rules that guarantee competition on the merits prevail, to the benefit of all?"
Microsoft said the companies were responding to innovation with litigation.
"We have come to expect that as we introduce new products that benefit consumers, particularly with the kind of breakthrough technologies in Office 12 and Windows Vista, a few competitors will complain," it said.
ECIS did not make the complaint public, citing business confidentiality. It mentions Microsoft's Office software suite, which packages word processing, spreadsheet and office management tools, but ECIS lawyer Thomas Vinje would not say if Microsoft's forthcoming operating system, Vista, was part of the complaint.
The European Commission said it has already received another complaint about Vista but has not yet decided to open a probe.
Microsoft described ECIS as a front for IBM and other rivals who constantly tried to use regulatory complaints to their business advantage.
Vinje insisted the group had existed since 1989 as a "pretty central player" on copyright and other software issues.
"This is a matter of great concern to a great swathe of the industry," he said.
Several ECIS members, such as Novell Inc. and RealNetworks, have backed away from openly supporting the EU as it defends itself from Microsoft's legal challenge after striking deals with Microsoft, leaving broad industry groups such as ECIS and the Software & Information Industry Association in the ring.
"Microsoft is perhaps the most powerful company in the world," said Vinje. "Companies have legitimate reasons to fear retribution for making their concerns known."
The group also includes smaller software companies such as Norway's Opera Software ASA, which makes a Web browser, and two Linux operating system businesses Red Hat Inc. and the upstart Linspire, which was forced to change its name from Lindows after Microsoft sued for trademark infringement.
ECIS' complaint targets areas not covered by the EU's 2004 antitrust ruling, which found Microsoft had abused its position as a market leader by bundling media software into its near-ubiquitous Windows desktop software and squeezing rival media players out of the market.
Vinje said the group had sent the commission "lots of binders" detailing evidence and analysis from prominent economists covering issues such as bundling and Microsoft's refusal to supply interoperability information needed to make rival products work with Windows.
The 2004 ruling primarily addressed media player and server software. Vinje said the complaint was wide-ranging, covering both existing and future products, but he would not elaborate beyond saying Office was among them.
"If Microsoft had complied with respect to the 2004 decision, we would not have to file a complaint," he said. "They have replicated this behavior."
The group's chairman Simon Awde said strong antitrust law enforcement seemed to the only way to stop "the sustained anticompetitive behavior of Microsoft."
"The limits on Microsoft practices established in European antitrust law, most notably by the Commission's 2004 decision, now need to be rapidly and broadly enforced," he said in a statement.
In March 2004, the EU ordered Microsoft to offer a version of Windows without the Media Player software, to share communications code with rivals and pay a record $613 million fine.
Microsoft's legal challenge against the ruling will be heard by the Court of First Instance, the EU's second-highest court, in late April.
By Aoife White