Finally, someone complains about Microsoft

An echo of the US government's case against Microsoft is being heard in New Zealand with the filing of a complaint against the company last week with the Commerce Commission. I'm surprised it's taken this long for any formal local action to be initiated against Microsoft.

An echo of the US government's case against Microsoft is being heard in New Zealand with the filing of a complaint against the company last week with the Commerce Commission.

Personally, I'm surprised it's taken this long for any formal local action to be initiated against Microsoft. After all, it was in late 1999 that the company was first found by a US court to be guilty of anticompetitive behaviour.

In the time since, it's been business as usual for Microsoft here in New Zealand. In fact, last September the company scored a major coup with a big customer – the New Zealand government, no less – signing a $10 million deal to supply two years of software to schools. Not a bad result for a convicted monopolist. Or perhaps that's precisely the scale of business monopolies can count on (although it was said at the time that the government was getting a generous discount).

As anyone who's followed the antitrust case in the US will know, it's been anything but business as usual for Microsoft there. The proceedings have gone from one court to the next and, while the original ruling remains, the judge who began hearing the case was taken off it. His remedy – that the company be split up – was overturned. The Department of Justice and half the US states which took the case reached an out-of-court agreement with Microsoft, but nine remaining stroppy states continue to argue for tougher sanctions. As a new judge hears final evidence before determining remedies once and for all, witnesses are still lining up to describe alleged mistreatment at the hands of Microsoft.

The New Zealand subsidiary's immunity to such public humiliation could now be about to end. It's not certain that the Commerce Commission will undertake a full investigation of the anticompetitive practices alleged in the complaint lodged last week. But at the very least, it will have to determine whether the complaint has substance. That process alone could take months; a full investigation could than drag on for up to a year (as did dealing with a recent complaint against Telecom). None of it will cheer Microsoft New Zealand, whose just-departed (nice timing!) boss, Geoff Lawrie, said that even from this distance the US court action cast a pall over the local company. One option open to the commission, if it upholds the complaint, is to drag Microsoft into a New Zealand court.

It's anyone's guess what the outcome will be. The complainant in the aforementioned Telecom case waited a year to be told no action would be taken, which only served to convince him that the commission was unwilling to get involved in highly politicised cases. There's plenty of potential for politics to get mixed up with this complaint, which has been triggered by Microsoft's new Software Assurance licensing programme, and which, among other things, claims "the case is of critical importance to the national interest in competition in trade". The complainant requests the commission consider whether it has grounds to recommend state controls be slapped on Microsoft goods and services.

The commission told Computerworld last year that it saw little value for the taxpayer in replicating the US action. But that was before it had a formal complaint to get its teeth into. Now that it has, we shouldn't be content until a thorough investigation has been carried out.

Doesburg is Computerworld's editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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