The European judge deciding whether to suspend the European Union’s landmark antitrust ruling against Microsoft Corp. pushed the EU to justify its sweeping order – questioning Friday whether the move would rein in the U.S. software giant or raise costs for others.
“Is it realistic that this remedy will have a real effect?” Judge Bo Vesterdorf, president of the Court of First Instance, asked the EU’s executive commission on the final day of a two-day hearing.
“Isn’t it kind of dramatic to impose a remedy in which you do not know the results, with all the complications it is going to bring?”
Commission lawyer Per Hellstrom argued that the EU’s job was not to pick a winner in the digital media player wars between Microsoft and rivals like RealNetworks Inc. and Apple Computer Inc. But he said its order should “level the playing field.”
Microsoft “might win this competition, but they will win it on the merits,” he said.
After a day that featured dueling economists, slide shows, a demonstration from Microsoft’s video game “Age of Empires” and a clip from the latest James Bond film, Vesterdorf said he would make his decision “as quickly as possible.
“It’s going to be difficult,” he added before adjourning. Such rulings usually take a month or two.
Microsoft is trying to get the EU’s March 24 ruling suspended pending appeal. That ruling called for Microsoft to pay a $600 million fine for monopolistic behavior and, among other remedies, sell a stripped-down version of its Windows software without its Media Player with the goal of encouraging competition. A suspension would delay implementation of the order for years – and could provide impetus for renewed settlement talks.
Thursday’s opening session focused on the EU’s demand for Microsoft to release more technical specifications to rivals in the server market, something Microsoft conceded in court it had been willing to do during aborted settlement talks early this year.
Friday’s hearing cut closer to the heart of Microsoft’s core strategy of adding new features to existing products to maintain its lead and expand its business.
Although the EU order would still allow Microsoft to sell a full-fledged version of Windows with Media Player – at the same price as the stripped-down version – the commission argued computer manufacturers would be able to decide for themselves which digital media software to install. That, in turn, would give content providers a greater incentive to encode their products in more than just Microsoft’s media format.