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Microsoft Corp. said in court Thursday that it had been prepared during settlement talks to share more software code with its rivals than the European Union ultimately demanded. Nevertheless, the company argued that it would still face irreparable harm if forced to comply with a landmark antitrust ruling. Judge Bo Vesterdorf grilled EU officials about whether “less forceful” means could have achieved the same effect as they defended their order during the first public hearing in the more than 5-year-old case. The software giant is asking Europe’s second-highest court to suspend the EU’s far-reaching antitrust order, which would force dramatic changes in Microsoft’s business practices. Vesterdorf must decide whether to grant a stay while Microsoft’s appeal is being heard, a process that could take years, or allow it to take effect immediately as the EU and Microsoft critics want. The European Commission found Microsoft guilty in March of abusing its dominant position with the Windows operating system, which runs more than 90 percent of personal computers worldwide, to push into new markets like servers. Among the penalties imposed was an order to hand over more software blueprints to rivals in the server market so competitors’ products could communicate better with Microsoft products. After opening statements in which the two sides sparred over the scope and impact of the March 24 ruling, Vesterdorf grilled both for several hours. Much of the questioning involved such technical issues as whether the specifications demanded by the EU mean competitors would “get to know more than they need to know,” as Microsoft asserts. “One says yes, one says no, is there a third expert somewhere who could give me an example?” Vesterdorf asked at one point, expressing frustration. He then raised a point mentioned earlier by a lawyer for Novell, Inc., which distributes the rival Linux operating system, who argued that Microsoft had offered to provide the same information during aborted settlement talks early this year. Those talks collapsed largely over the other half of the commission’s order: that Microsoft offer a version of Windows minus its digital media software, Media Player, to give the products of rivals like RealNetworks a better shot. The commission also fined the company a record $600 million. Vesterdorf asked whether the order was “more burdensome” than what Microsoft had been willing to agree to. EU official Juergen Mensching, who was involved in the settlement negotiations, said they were “very close,” adding that the only thing that wasn’t discussed in depth was the appointment of a trustee to oversee implementation. Another high-ranking EU official, Cecilio Madero, told the judge that Microsoft had been “ready to give more than what we were asking by our decision,” causing a flurry of activity on Microsoft’s side of the courtroom. Microsoft’s chief lawyer, Brad Smith, who had not planned to address the court, told the judge there were “some aspects where we were prepared to go farther,” citing security of networks as an example. “We were prepared to enter into an agreement even though at the top of the company we felt it would mean irreparable harm in a number of areas,” he said. A negotiated settlement would have meant avoiding a fine and years of litigation and uncertainty, he said. “That doesn’t mean the cost or the harm was taken lightly,” he added. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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