It's come too late for anyone buying a home computer for Christmas, but this week's confirmation that Microsoft must immediately obey European Union rules will make a difference to the market in 2005. It is also a welcome seasonal gift for the European Commission, after repeated recent rebuffs over its competition rulings, and after the last-minute desertions of its allies in its case against Microsoft.

The principal impact of the EU's Court of First Instance decision is that consumers will be offered a choice: buy Windows with the Media Player software on board, or buy Windows without the Media Player, and then opt for any software for watching videos or listening to music.

Rival software companies will also have increased opportunities for developing compatible products, now that Microsoft must share some of its proprietary information on interfacing - good for competitors, and good for the consumer.

Microsoft will start shipping a version of Windows without the bundled Media Player in January, and has already started moves to make available the interoperability information.

There was palpable relief in the Commission's reaction that the Court had - as it said - "preserved the effectiveness of anti-trust enforcement". The Commission's ruling last March provoked a vigorous appeal from...

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