Post details: Tying in Windows Vista

Tying in Windows Vista

Posted by Andrew on September 15th, 2006

The European Commission's competition directorate is publicly warning Microsoft against extending its practice of bundling security software features into Windows, raising the possibility of an antitrust challenge to the planned introduction of Windows Vista in 2007.

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The OS-security software tie seems, at least on first glance, to be more readily justifiable than the many other product bundles that have resulted from Microsoft's neverending "embrace, extend, extinguish" campaign. In antitrust analysis, it's more accurate to think of software products as computational service providers than as lines of code. It seems reasonable to allow vendors to enable their software products to maintain and guarantee high levels of service delivery over time. I think this is why the U.S. Justice Department in the 1998 case didn't challenge the inclusion of Windows Update in Windows 98, and why government witness Ed Felten went to the trouble of supporting Windows Update functionality in his prototype Internet Explorer-removal program.

Also, as has long been noted, the ubiquity of Windows as a monoculture elevates the concern that any given Windows virus will lead to a widespread epidemic. Automating the delivery of security patches to Windows users and some other facial tying behaviors might be justified as the kind of "public health" infrastructure that might prove necessary to protect Windows users in an often hostile computing environment. Given Microsoft's track record, it's certainly conceivable that the exclusionary effects of Windows Vista's included security features are more restrictive than would be reasonably necessary to support these public health solutions, but that's going to be a hard line for any court to draw.

So I think the EC needs to tread carefully here. It's heartening that the Commission is taking a hard look at Windows Vista; there's little sign that U.S. antitrust enforcers are doing the same. But Microsoft's many other tying arrangements, involving Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, and (coming soon) Windows Server Virtualization, have raised clearer and more compelling antitrust concerns, and the EC is still a long way from redressing even those harms.

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