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Senators urge Microsoft OS probe

Three senators ask the Federal Trade Commission to look into Microsoft's operating system licensing structure.

    Three Republican senators are asking the Federal Trade Commission to look into Microsoft's (MSFT) operating system licensing structure.

    A letter to the commission signed Thursday by Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), and Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming) raises the concerns of an unspecified "number of companies, including computer manufacturers" that Microsoft has not complied with a 1994 consent decree it signed after an investigation by the Justice Department into the software giant's alleged antitrust practices.

    The letter does not state what the violations may be or who has been complaining to the three senators, all of whom are members of the Senate Commerce Committee.

    The move has already stirred opposition. The committee chairman, John McCain (R-Arizona), and Slade Gorton (R-Washington) have urged colleagues in a letter not to join the call for an FTC investigation.

    "Given the alacrity with which the DOJ has pursued its investigations of Microsoft's practices, we do not believe that it is necessary, or appropriate for the Congress to direct the FTC to investigate," the McCain/Gorton letter states.

    "Microsoft is complying fully with the consent decree," company spokesman Mark Murray said. "Any suggestion to the contrary is flat-out wrong. This letter was motivated by our competitors."

    Signed in 1994, according to Murray, the decree forbids Microsoft from doing four things:

  • Selling "per-processor" licenses to computer makers, known as original equipment manufacturers, which add Microsoft's operating system to their machines before selling them. With "per-processor" licenses, Microsoft was able to sell volumes of system software based on the number of PCs the manufacturer would make with a certain processor, Murray said.

  • Signing multiyear licenses.

  • Requiring an OEM to sell a minimum number of PCs per year.

  • Requiring an OEM to ship other Microsoft products as a condition of licensing Windows, a practice known as "tying."