The decision by the EC to make Microsoft disclose all documentation to other server vendors so their products can interoperate with Windows PCs may form the most important part of the anti-trust decision announced yesterday.

The US anti-trust settlement reached with Microsoft required the company to broaden its disclosure of desktop protocols to other server vendors. But the EC went a step further and called for “full interoperability” of non-Microsoft servers with Windows PCs as well as servers.

Details about the European Commission’s decision - including the specific requirements stating how far Microsoft must go - won’t be available for weeks. However, Microsoft will soon get a copy of the full decision and will have the opportunity to recommend removal of competitive and sensitive information before it is released.

Analysts remain uncertain about what the end result will be. “The server piece [of the decision] has some potential, once we know what it is,” said David Smith, an analyst at Gartner, but added: “I’m not optimistic - given history, how hard it is, how complicated it is."

Microsoft’s chief legal counsel, Brad Smith, derided this aspect to the decision. By forcing the company to disclose server protocols, the European Commission is asking Microsoft to give away valuable parts of its intellectual property to its competitors, he said in a conference call with reporters.

Smith attempted to draw a comparison with the newspaper market. The commission’s requirement was similar to “saying to a newspaper that you’ve got to make your articles available to run [in other newspapers] even though you know that those newspapers are going to be sold in competition with your own,” he argued, ignoring the fact that there are thousands of paper and ink suppliers across the globe.

Lee Patch, legal affairs VP at Sun, said the European Commission has done what the US Department of Justice didn’t do, “which was to define the level or degree or interoperability... required of a monopolist.”

The decision, said Patch, sets full interoperability "as the standard for competition", meaning that competition should be based on price, performance, stability and security that's "not to be distorted by the interoperability to the Microsoft desktop monopoly product".

The EC fined Microsoft €500 million and ordered the company to offer a version of Windows without Windows Media Player. It took a firm stance on the server issue, stating that Microsoft was "deliberately restricting" interoperability between Windows PCs and non-Microsoft servers. It continued: "This illegal conduct has enabled Microsoft to acquire a dominant position in the market for work group server operating systems, which are at the heart of corporate IT networks, and risks eliminating competition altogether in that market."

Microsoft will seek a suspension of the order, pending appeal which may take three to five years to complete. A decision on the suspension could come as soon as autumn.

Critics have contended that Microsoft preserves certain functionality between its servers and its desktop that’s not available to Unix or Linux-based servers, for instance. In that case, Microsoft servers may be able to offer single sign-on to a mixed environment, a technology feature that other vendors could supply but have trouble implementing if they don’t know the Windows server protocols.

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata, said a lot of Microsoft’s software, like its Active Directory, is designed under the assumption that it is running in a pure Windows environment. “Microsoft software taken as a whole is much more monolithic than is typically the case in the Linux and Unix world,” he explained.