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EU ruling critical of Microsoft is backed

BRUSSELS -- The European Union's antitrust chief won critical backing yesterday for a potentially landmark ruling that would force Microsoft Corp. to strip its Windows computer operating system of a lucrative component and make other changes.

A closed-door session with representatives of the 15 EU governments -- expected to run all day due to the case's complexity -- instead ended shortly after noon with unanimous backing of the European Commission's draft decision, said commission spokeswoman Amelia Torres.

The draft is tentatively set to be adopted next week, sources familiar with the case said.

The endorsement bolsters the EU's hand in dealing with Microsoft, which is seeking a settlement even as it pledges to carry on the fight in court.

Microsoft hopes to avert a far-reaching order that would result in a fine of up to $3 billion and force the company to strip Media Player from its flagship operating system in Europe -- giving rival products from competitors including RealNetworks Inc. a better chance of getting on consumer desktops.

The EU draft ruling would also compel Microsoft to release more Windows programming code in the interests of improving "interoperability" with competing networking software made by Sun Microsystems Inc. and others.

Given the size of the EU market, such an order could have global implications for Microsoft, which argues that its practice of continually adding new features to Windows benefits consumers.

A negative decision would be the biggest setback for Microsoft since a US judge found the company guilty of antitrust violations involving Internet browsers in 2000. Sources say the EU's draft ruling similarly finds Microsoft abused its monopoly in operating software to gain share in markets for digital media players and low-end server software.

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