In covering the European Commission's efforts to regulate Microsoft, most of the U.S. press missed the point.
The American media dwelled myopically on whether the EC remedy imposed on Microsoft would bring any meaningful changes to the personal-computer landscape. But the European antitrust proceeding dealt less with the issues covered in RealNetworks' suit against Microsoft than with the far broader implications for the future of consumer electronics.
Put simply, Europe's non-PC-centric electronics business is under siege.
Microsoft's monopoly on the PC market has already earned the software giant the power to dictate to the industry as it formulates decisions on digital consumer specifications and standards. Microsoft has achieved a virtual veto on how the engineering community designs next-generation mobile phones, portable audio and video players, digital camcorders, set-tops and high-definition DVD systems.
Bundle of trouble
Consider the emerging high-definition DVD system spec. Microsoft has talked some Hollywood studios into encoding certain films in Microsoft's proprietary Windows Media Player. By bundling Media Player into its overwhelmingly dominant Windows operating system, Microsoft can legitimately claim that the PC is the most popular platform among consumers for the playback of next-generation HD DVD disks.
Consumer electronics manufacturers are advised to cooperate in this bloodless coup. If they fail to incorporate enough memory and processing power to decode Microsoft's Windows Media Player in new standalone high-definition DVD systems, they might live to regret having asserted their independence.
This future is not so traumatic, perhaps, for fixed consumer systems. But that does not apply to mobile handsets and portable consumer media players, whose resources are constrained by cost, memory and power consumption.
Europe is heading for a new smart phone standard called DVB-Handheld, built on the convergence of terrestrial digital TV broad-casting and mobile com-munications networks. Deeply suspicious of Microsoft as "a monopolist," most DVB members working on the DVB-H standard don't want to acquiesce to Microsoft's Windows Media Player. Yet they may have to, if Microsoft's yet-to-be-disclosed licensing terms are reasonable, and if Microsoft continues to co-opt the broadcast and content creation/distribution industries.
Any good design engineer can develop a consumer device capable of reading multiple codecs, PC-style. But unless you are Microsoft, it's arrogant and wasteful to force your consumers to give up, as one observer put it, "precious hard-disk drive space to download multiple codecs."
If the EC fails to apply relentless scrutiny and sensible constraints on Microsoft's monopolistic tendencies, Europeans have every reason to fear for a loss of both control of and innovation in the non-PC market.
At stake is not PC technology but the future of consumer electronics platforms.
Paris-based Junko Yoshida covers consumer electronics for EE Times.