Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

Déjà vu? Microsoft announces Skype’s integration in Windows

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On 15 August Microsoft announced on a blog post that Skype will come installed by default in Windows 8.1, and that it will be prominently displayed in its “Start” Menu (see Skype-right from (the) “Start”)

The news appears to have surprised many, who have publicly wondered whether Microsoft is actively looking for antitrust trouble (see notably here, here, or here).

And, of course, given my involvement in Skype-related competition matters, when I returned from my summer holidays I had a good number of emails from students, journalists, lawyers, friends and even family who were sending me the news and asking for an opinion. Since it would not be practical to reply to all those emails separately, I have decided to do it here.

[A disclaimer first: as frequent readers of this blog know I represent the two companies who chose to challenge the Commission’s decision authorizing the Microsoft/Skype deal. This means that I certainly am not an impartial observer, but it does not mean that the views set out here are to be attributed to my clients or my firm; they are exclusively mine. These views also refer to a conduct which is post-decision and therefore not the subject of the pending case].

My first comment is:  Did anyone really not see this coming?

During the past few months Microsoft has pervasively integrated Skype with most of its products. Skype is now closely integrated with, for instance, Office, Office 365, Outlook, (formerly Hotmail), Windows Phone 8, Xbox, Lync (as announced only minutes after our Court hearing ended), and it was only a matter of time that it would come pre-installed in Windows. In the meanwhile, Skype’s only meaningful competitor in the consumer world (WindowsLiveMessenger) has disappeared and its users have been migrated to Skype.  As a result, Skype’s user base has skyrocketed since the merger (going from approx. 150 to over 300 million unique monthly users), and rapidly growing.

[By the way, all this obviously voluntarily enhances the already powerful network effects at play in the only communication markets where interconnection is not mandatory, with obvious consequences]

Microsoft’s decision to bundle Skype pervasively with other Microsoft products, including – as just announced – Windows, may actually have come as a surprise to the European Commission. In its Microsoft/Skype decision, the Commission concluded that Microsoft would not have the incentive to tie Skype to other Microsoft “leading/dominant” products (e.g., para 155). No kidding.

Now let’s cut to the chase, can the integration of an application with a dominant operating system run afoul of the competition rules?

The European Commission itself has held various seemingly contradictory views over time.  Microsoft, too, appears to have opposite views on this question. Let me explain this:

In the light of the spirit and the letter of the Microsoft’s 2004 infringement decision, the 2007 Microsoft Judgment, the 2009 Microsoft commitment decision, Skype’s integration with Windows would likely raise some antitrust flags (notably concerning the market for video calls, given that currently over 3 out of 4 video calls are made using PCs). As you know, in all of those precedents, the Commission and the General Court observed that pre-installation resulted in an unparalleled distributional advantage that could not be offset by the downloading of competing applications.

The Microsoft/Skype 2011 decision, however, arrived at exactly the opposite conclusion. The comments voiced out in the past few days in the media seem to have overlooked the fact that the Microsoft/Skype Decision – despite denying Microsoft’s incentives to tie Skype to its products – did actually address the possibility that Skype could be tied to Windows, and that it ruled out any competition concerns. The Decision acknowledged that pre-merger Skype was already present on approximately 60% of Windows PCs pursuant to agreements with OEMs, but alleged that there was data -not cited- showing that in practice pre-installation resulted only in a small share of Skype users (para 162). In other words, the Commission considered that pre-installation does not offer that much of a competitive advantage because users could easily and freely download Skype and other competing applications.

Query: does anyone see any inconsistencies between the Commission’s approaches to downloading? The Commission is certainly entitled to change approaches, but since the reasons for this change were not set out in the Decision, it’s difficult to identify with clarity what the Commission’s current approach to pre-installation vs. downloading is.

If you want to play more “find the differences”, try comparing the Commission’s prospective analyses and approaches to technical tying/bundling (and, for that matter, to interoperability degradations too) in Intel/McAfee (2011) and Microsoft/Skype (2011).

And whereas the Commission’s shifting viewpoints are remarkable, what is more striking is that Microsoft is, as of today, advocating two opposite legal standards, one for itself and another for Google:

As you may remember, back in April the FairSearch coalition (led in this case by Microsoft and Nokia) lodged a complaint against Google arguing that Google is abusing Android’s alleged dominance in the market for mobile operating systems by bundling certain “core Apps” with its operating system.

[The way I see it, in the case of Android the dominance and the bundlling are much more doubttful, but that is another story, and one interesting enough -I’ve just realized- to deserve some specific comments in the coming days].

So, in one case Microsoft is claiming that the pre-installation of Google apps on Android phones constitutes an abuse of a dominant position in the market for mobile OSs (no matter if users are free to download any competing application; btw, Skype for Android has no less than 100 million users!), but, at the same time, having Skype pre-installed in the dominant PC OS poses no problem (precisely because users are free to download other applications).

Anyone else sees any issue conflict?

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

2 September 2013 at 4:56 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] From Chillin’Competition: Déjà vu? Microsoft announces Skype’s integration in Windows […]

  2. […] are lots of new goodies at Chillin’ Competition: questioning the consistency of bundling analysis on news of Microsoft integrating Skype into Windows and two (so far) posts on the new EC complaint […]

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