U.S. Senate may set date for tech hearing Tuesday

When the U.S. Congress reconvenes from its summer recess Tuesday, the Senate committee in charge of such issues as antitrust and intellectual property law is expected to set the schedule for special hearings on competition in the software industry, focusing closely on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP operating system.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, announced last month it would launch an investigation into competition and innovation in the information technology industry. The committee will announce the dates for those hearings as early as Tuesday, David Carle, a Leahy spokesman, said this week.

The Senate body will examine issues "on competition and innovation involving advanced computer and Internet technologies," according to a committee statement issued in July. The hearings will consider licensing issues, exclusive contracting, convergence and access to digital content, as well as examine legal precedents and principles in the software and Internet industries, the committee said. It also said that it expected the hearings to be held in September.

Although Senate representatives have not spelled it out exactly what parts of Microsoft's business the hearings will address, Carle said that many of the discussions will be "Microsoft-centric" due to its dominance in the computing industry. For instance, the committee's statement lists desktop issues such as instant messaging, digital photography, Web services, consumer privacy and the integration of new features as discussion points. Microsoft opponents and consumer advocacy groups have expressed concerns about those issues with respect to Microsoft products and services.

New York Senator Charles Schumer, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who called for the hearing in July, has been an outspoken critic of Microsoft and its forthcoming Windows XP operating system. Schumer has argued that Windows XP perpetuates Microsoft's history of bundling applications with the operating system in a way that he said limits competition. Microsoft has said it will bundle its Windows Media Player, instant messenger software and other applications with Windows XP, which has also sparked criticism from industry opponents that play in those markets. Microsoft has countered that the moves are intended to benefit consumers by making its operating system easier to use. The company shipped the final code of the operating system to PC makers this month, and it is due to launch Oct. 25.

Schumer represents the state that is home to AOL Time Warner Inc. and Eastman Kodak Co., two companies that have protested against the bundling of applications in Windows XP, such as instant messaging and photo editing software.

The planned Senate hearings come as Microsoft and the U.S. government enter the next phase of their landmark antitrust bout. A new trial court judge has taken up the case to decide what remedies should be imposed to curb Microsoft's behavior since it was found to be in violation of antitrust laws by a federal judge. The judge has scheduled the first meeting with the two parties for Sept. 21. In court papers Friday, the government urged the U.S. Supreme Court to deny Microsoft's request for a review of the case.

Meanwhile, the European Commission Thursday merged its two antitrust inquiries involving Microsoft's operating system into one. The European Union is examining whether Microsoft used its desktop operating system monopoly to move into the market for low-end server software.

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