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Speak Softly And Carry A Thick Brief


Thomas Vinje doesn't come across as the kind of guy who would drive Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) crazy. Soft-spoken, shy, and intellectual by nature, the 52-year-old Vinje (pronounced Vin-ya) seems more like a professor than a high-powered lawyer who spends much of his waking hours taking on Microsoft.

Yet Vinje's bite is far worse than his bark. In his 16-year battle to pressure Microsoft to curb what the lawyer perceives as its anticompetitive tendencies in Europe, he has been point man for such competitors as Oracle Corp. (ORCL) and Sun Microsystems Inc (SUNW). A partner in the Brussels office of multinational law firm Clifford Chance LLP, Vinje played a key role in persuading the European Commission to fine Microsoft more than $600 million in 2004 for abusing its dominance of PC operating systems. On Feb. 22 an industry group represented by Vinje filed a new complaint with the EC accusing Microsoft of plotting to dominate the Internet with new software, thus forcing out competition from the likes of Linux, the free operating system that competes with Windows. "It seems painfully obvious to me that's what it is all about," Vinje says.

The latest complaint, a year in the making, opens up a new front in the war against Microsoft. It accuses the company of planning to use soon-to-be-released products such as Vista, the next version of Windows, as well as upcoming Windows server software, and a new version of Office, to fence off ever bigger parts of the software universe. The complaint, not yet public, argues that Microsoft plans to combine its new PC and server operating systems with its own software for creating Web applications and managing content rights. By bundling in its own products, or offering them at too-good-to-refuse prices, Microsoft could ruin the market for competitors such as Adobe Systems Inc. (ADBE), according to Vinje. He also worries that Microsoft is trying to weaken open standards on the Net, forcing Web developers toward Microsoft's proprietary approaches. Says Vinje: "It means Microsoft gains control of the Web."

"VERY TOUGH"

For Microsoft, which denies it is trying to create any kind of monopoly, the complaint is a major headache as the software giant readies new products. The reason, as much as anything, is Vinje himself. "He can be very tough," says Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Assn., which employed Vinje to represent it in Europe during the long-running battle with Microsoft. "He's not looking to pick fights on personality and style, but will absolutely pick them on substance."

Vinje is known as a master of rhetoric who can easily summarize highly technical issues in ways that EU officials can understand. He has years of experience in intellectual property and antitrust law. He also has been able to hold together the coalition of companies that finance the anti-Microsoft fight, ranging from giants like Oracle to relatively small companies such as Norway's Opera, which makes Web browsers for mobile phones.

Microsoft portrays Vinje as the richly compensated front man in a crusade by IBM (IBM) and other rivals to hurt its business. "They are a very small group of companies with a very clear business interest in keeping Microsoft harassed by the regulatory process," says Horacio E. Gutiérrez, associate general counsel for Microsoft in Europe. Yet the software titan has been sparring with Vinje for much of its corporate history. In 1989, San Francisco-based law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP sent him to Brussels to represent tech clients such as Fujitsu Ltd. and NCR Corp. (NCR) concerned about European software law.

THE LONG CRUSADE

Soon after, Vinje helped found the European Committee for Interoperable Systems, lobbying on behalf of clients such as Nokia Corp. (NOK) on early software regulation. That led to enormous clashes with Microsoft over ground rules for companies to reverse-engineer one another's software in order to create compatible programs. The struggle culminated in landmark legislation in 1991. "If dominant companies throw their weight around to avoid competition, that's a bad thing," says Vinje, who cites his youthful travels through the Soviet bloc as a lesson in how monopolies impede markets.

Vinje's crusade against Microsoft went into high gear in 1999, when he argued the competitors' case before the European Commission, the EU's administrative arm. It took five years of hearings and written arguments before the commission levied its now-famous fine in 2004. The decision was a huge win for Microsoft antagonists. But they can't claim victory yet. Microsoft has appealed the decision, which will be heard by the EU'S Court of First Instance in April, and still hasn't given over all the technical information competitors say they need.

Vinje could have years more of 12-hour days as a result. That's O.K., he says, if it means bringing Microsoft to heel. "It's not that I hate Microsoft or want to destroy Microsoft. It's not personal," he says. "What I would like them to do is compete on the merits." For Microsoft, making Thomas Vinje go away is no easy task.

By Jack Ewing


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