Microsoft will offer free unlimited technical support to those who license its workgroup server protocols, in its latest move to satisfy the European Commission that Microsoft is complying with the 2004 antitrust ruling against the company.

Microsoft had previously offered 500 hours of technical support but said licensees can now get unlimited support as well as on-site assistance. Microsoft said the move was voluntary, although it had been suggested by the Commission during talks in January, said Tom Brookes, a Microsoft spokesman.

The Commission's response was guarded, although it called the proposal a "constructive" one.

Microsoft documents are "poor quality"

Microsoft and the Commission have been in dispute over whether the company has complied with the terms of the protocol licensing requirement, which is intended to create a more level playing field in the workgroup server market.

No companies have licensed the server protocols so far, but several have accepted "evaluation" licenses, Brookes said.

Microsoft says the 12,000 pages of related documentation it has submitted provide ample information for companies to use its protocols. The Commission has said the documentation is insufficient and too confusing to let other companies develop server products that work smoothly with Windows.

On Wednesday it reiterated its position that the documentation Microsoft provided so far is insufficient. Additional tech support is only helpful when the documentation has "reached a certain quality standard," it said.

"Nevertheless, at first sight this seems to be a constructive proposal as Microsoft will naturally be well placed to answer questions from licensees on specific points of the documentation," the Commission said.

Will Microsoft escape punishment?

The Commission sent a statement of objections to Microsoft in December over the documentation and threatened to fine the company €2 million a day. That fine has been on hold pending hearings on March 30 and 31 over whether Microsoft has met the requirements of the 2004 ruling.

The Commission denied Microsoft's request to make the hearings public, saying they are kept closed to allow participants to speak freely. Companies and organisations who have filed complaints against Microsoft, including IBM , Sun Microsystems and the Free Software Foundation, will be able to make presentations before the case officer.

Secret connections denied

Earlier this month, Microsoft charged the Commission with encouraging "secret contacts" between its rivals and Neil Barrett, the computer science professor appointed as the trustee to evaluate Microsoft's compliance.

The Commission responded by saying Barrett is authorised to have contact with other companies regarding what information they need to make interoperable products. Barrett, the Commission said, was recommended by Microsoft.

Microsoft is appealing the March 2004 decision that fined the company €497 million for abusing its dominant market position. Microsoft was also ordered to ship a version of its OS without Windows Media Player and to divulge the interoperability information for its server software.

The European Court of First Instance in Luxembourg is scheduled to hear its appeal on April 24.