Is Microsoft Taking A New Approach Toward The European Commission?

This week reports surfaced that Microsoft is talking to European anti-trust regulators about its proposed Internet search collaboration with Yahoo. The EC, the executive branch of the European Union, hasn't announced a formal investigation into the Microsoft-Yahoo partnership and the talks appear aimed to resolve early-on any EC concerns.

Word of the informal discussions follows talks between Microsoft and the European Commission earlier this summer to resolve a dispute about Microsoft's combining Windows 7 with its Internet Explorer browser.

Microsoft's new approach to working with the EC is a marked contrast from the acrimonious dealings between the two through much of the 1990s and the first half of this decade. Microsoft and the EC engaged in lengthy disputes over what the EC said was Microsoft's use of its "quasi-monopoly" in personal computer operating systems to unfairly compete with other software vendors.

One particularly bitter dispute revolved around how Microsoft built Windows Media Player into the Windows operating system, a practice the EC said was anti-competitive.

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But it sounds like Microsoft has concluded that quiet diplomacy with the EC, rather than trying to fight regulators head-on, might be a more effective strategy.

This summer Microsoft and the EC stepped up efforts to resolve a long-running dispute about Microsoft's practice of building IE into Windows, including the upcoming Windows 7. Microsoft, after initially offering to ship a version of Windows 7 in Europe without the browser, settled instead on a plan to let customers select from a list of Web browsers from a so-called "ballot screen."

And now comes word that Microsoft and the EC are quietly trying to resolve any issues about the Yahoo alliance before the two vendors close the deal early next year.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, when asked about the IE dispute during a Q&A session at the vendor's Worldwide Partner Conference in July, said Microsoft had done its best to comply with the EC's regulations. Ballmer's low-key response was in sharp contrast to his usual bluster.

Does all this add up to a kinder, gentler Microsoft when it comes to dealing with the EC? It's too early to say for sure. But the software company that's generally used to getting it's way just might have decided that a new strategic approach " or at least a different tone " may be more effective.