Deadline for MS to hand over secrets

London, November 15:

Brussels gave Microsoft a nine-day deadline yesterday to provide its rivals with outstanding details of its software systems or face fresh fines.

Neelie Kroes, the European Union’s competition commissioner, gave the world’s largest software group until next Thursday — Thanksgiving Day in America — to hand over

all relevant information about the secret protocols behind its Windows operating system.

Kroes fined Microsoft 280.5 million euros in July for failing to comply with commission rulings and could now fine it up to 3 million euros a day.

In an interview, she made plain that her patience had run out, saying, “I don’t have eternal life.” Microsoft, which is launching its upgraded Vista operating system this month, had promised to deliver all the details — to allow its systems to operate fully with rival networks — by July 19.

Kroes said, “I am not impressed if someone says 90 per cent of the information is already there when we need 100 per cent. It’s a jigsaw and some parts are missing. In my opinion, this information should have been here a couple of months ago.” Her predecessor, Mario Monti, fined Microsoft a record 497 million euros in 2004 for abusing its market dominance. The group felt it had struck a new relationship with the European Commission after protracted talks on Vista, in which it offered to share software details with rivals.

Competing companies say the offer is inadequate. Kroes denies she is pursuing a vendetta against Microsoft, but has vowed to maintain relentless pressure on it to comply with EU competition rules. She insists that strict application of the rules is vital to boosting economic growth and jobs in Europe — ensuring that companies are innovative and that small and medium-sized firms are able to enter the market and compete successfully.

“I am the referee of the game and I will be tough and fair,” she said. She would not shirk from decisions on anti-trust activities, mergers or state aid. “I will not tolerate economic nationalism or attempts at bullying by member states or big companies,” she said, pointing to the record 1.3 billion eutos fines imposed on cartels so far this year.

She also signalled determination to fine mainland energy groups for failing to open networks to competitors. In addition, she wants a single regulator to police the EU energy market and ensure that national regulators stick to the same rules. Her plans will be announced on January 10.

In May, the commission raided utilities in six member states, including Germany, as part of its inquiry into excessive concentration in the energy market. Kroes said the results indicated that large companies were continuing to break EU internal market and competition rules. Further action was needed.

In January, the commission will require big integrated groups, such as Germany’s EO.N, to sell off their transmission networks in order to separate them from their generation and supply businesses - and to let in new investors.

“There’s so much money available to invest in infrastructure and make the difference in our gas and electricity supply, so we need to get rid of the barriers to potential new entrants and let the market do the job,” she said.

Kroes favours cross-border mergers in energy and other sectors such as financial services — helping to create pan-European players, capable of negotiating with big suppliers such as Russia. “I don’t believe in national champions any more: it’s an outdated concept, and we are losing the game if we continue protecting them. I’m all for European champions, but I prefer global champions which are located in Europe and can help grow the economy.”

She is also keen to secure a better deal for consumers from banks and financial services firms which charge wide variations in payment card fees. “I buy it when there’s not a complete similarity in charges, but not 400 per cent. It shows what’s rotten in the state,” she said.

Details of an EU study of the financial services industry will be published on January 17.