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Raining on Microsoft's parade

Attorney Thomas Vinje represents a coalition of Microsoft rivals charging the company with ongoing antitrust violations in Europe.

On the eve of the Microsoft Vista and Office 2007 launch, Thomas Vinje describes himself as a "native son gone bad."

Vinje, a Norwegian-American who grew up in Kirkland, Wash., and formerly bought milk from the dairy farms of nearby Redmond decades ago, is in the thick of battle with Microsoft in Europe.

The 52-year-old Vinje, a partner in the London-based Clifford Chance law firm, is on the legal team representing the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS)--a coalition that includes industry titans IBM, Nokia, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and others waging war against Microsoft for allegedly violating European antitrust laws.

Vinje, who handles European antitrust issues and intellectual property cases for Clifford Chance's Brussels office, spoke to CNET News.com about ECIS, how it is gunning for a win against Microsoft, and the reasons for a December update to its February 2006 complaint against Microsoft, which alleges the software giant continues to violate the European Commission's historic antitrust order of March 2004.

Q: Here it is, the eve of the launch for Vista and Office 2007. Why did ECIS look at forwarding its complaint to the European Commission at this point and time? Why not earlier?
Vinje: We filed our complaint with the Commission last February, over Microsoft's refusal to disclose their Office file formats (.doc, .xls, and .ppt), so it could be fully compatible and interoperable with others' software, like Linux. We also had concerns with their collaboration software with XP, e-mail software, and OS server software and some media server software with their existing products.

They use their vast resources to delay things as long as possible and to wear people down so they'll give up.

And in July, we updated our complaint to reflect our concerns with Microsoft's "open XML." (Microsoft's Office Open XML is a default document format for its Office 2007 suite.) And last month, we supplemented that information with concerns we had for .Net 3.0 (software designed to allow Vista applications to run on XP and older-generation operating systems).

There's been nothing interesting behind the timing. We just needed to take time to find out what the facts were and as the beta information came out, we were able to file our full complaint. You can make the argument that it's better to address these things before the product comes out, or it's easier to address them once a product is in the market.

How optimistic are you that the European Commission will take your concerns seriously and act on them?
Vinje: The Commission has been preoccupied with Microsoft's appeal (to the Court of First Instance) and implementing the remedies against Microsoft from the existing March 2004 order. Still, we understand the Commission has sent our latest supplement to Microsoft for comment.

We believe the Commission will take it seriously and give it the attention it deserves, given this is the same sort of behavior Microsoft previously engaged in. If the Commission decides to proceed to a statement of objections, I believe it will proceed more rapidly this time around.

Do feel a sense of deja vu with this latest complaint the ECIS has submitted to the Commission? Do you think it will ever end?
Vinje: The answer to that question lies in Microsoft's hands. I think part of their strategy is to wear everyone out--their adversaries, the Commission, the courts, the users. They use their vast resources to delay things as long as possible and to wear people down so they'll give up.

I think this is possible, but I also think the Commission is still very determined. Commissioner Neelie Kroes herself is very tough about applying the law.

Because the Commission has previously taken Microsoft to task on antitrust issues, are you expecting things to move much faster this go around with your complaint?
Vinje: What we hope for and what we expect from the Commission is that they intend to proceed much faster this time than last time, but, of course, that is allowing for all the procedural steps and processes. Things are different now than when they were initially when the commission acted in 2004. They have a dedicated team who has already been through the ringer, a very knowledgeable staff, and some legal principals that have been established. It's a completely different ball game in that regard.

Do you anticipate other trade groups joining the ECIS in their fight? And how long do you expect it will take for Microsoft to issue its response to your complaint?
Vinje: We have been communicating with other U.S. trade associations, consumer groups and open-source organizations in Europe. We are in a cooperative mode, but we have not made any formal alliances yet. I wouldn't exclude that yet from happening.

We expect Microsoft will be getting back to the Commission soon with a response. Typically, it takes one to two months for a company to respond, since there are no statutory requirements.