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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 December, 2004, 01:33 GMT
2004: Business year in review
By Martin Webber
BBC World Business Report editor

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates
Microsoft made peace with its long-time rival, Sun Microsystems

In the second of a two-part review of 2004, World Business Report looks back at a year which saw Microsoft challenge a $600m EU fine and make peace with its long-time rival, Sun Microsystems.

Disney chief executive Mike Eisner felt the heat from shareholders, while oil giant Shell plunged into controversy following the overstatement of its energy reserves.

It was generally a successful year for Microsoft.

Four years ago, things had looked bleak. Microsoft's staggeringly high profit margins on Windows software of around 85% had attracted the attention of regulators.

Indeed, one US judge ordered the firm to be broken up after it was found guilty of unfairly crushing its competitors.

EU fine

But that court ruling was reversed and the Bush administration called off the government lawyers when it took office.

In the past year, the European Union did fine Microsoft 497m euros ($613m; 340m), but that was the equivalent to a rap on the knuckles. Microsoft has 100 times that amount in its cash reserves.

An appeal by Microsoft against the fine was dismissed by the European Court of First Instance earlier this month, but the company remains confident it can reach an agreement with the European Commission.

In addition, Microsoft made peace with its long-time rival Sun Microsystems.

Sun agreed to take $1.6bn from Microsoft to settle outstanding claims.

But the must-have piece of technology for many people in the past year was not a computer or even a phone, but the latest type of personal stereo.

Internet tunes

Made by the Apple Computer, the iPod was the must-have fashion accessory. It can store thousands of tunes, downloaded either from your CD collection or from the internet. The launch in London of the download product iTunes was a noisy affair.

Man listening to mini iPod in Apple store
Apple has seen its profits jump on demand for its iPod

"The internet was built to deliver music," Apple's chief executive, Steve Jobs, told the BBC.

"I believe someday all music will be delivered over the internet, but that someday is probably a decade away."

Another media company that could not stay out of the news was Disney.

One former board member, Roy Disney, who is a nephew of the company's founder Walt Disney, began the year by launching a stinging attack on the group's boss Michael Eisner.

During his 20 year reign at Disney, Mr Eisner secured the firm's independence, but Disney's merger with the ABC television station has not done well for shareholders.

'Wrong direction'

What so troubled Roy Disney was the closure of the company's last studio which saw artists drawing cartoons by hand, in the style of classics like the Jungle Book and Mickey Mouse.

Roy Disney and Michael Eisner
Roy Disney and Michael Eisner in happier times

"It is the wrong decision in my view, just pure and simple," Mr Disney told World Business Report at the time.

"I'm afraid [Eisner] is really too much involved in what not to do than what to do. Too much involved in the quarterly reports to Wall Street and not enough in the long term success of the company."

Pressure mounted on Mr Eisner through the year. He had to fight off a hostile takeover bid, while a shareholder revolt forced him to give up his title of chairman.

But Mr Eisner remained as chief executive in charge of day-to-day business at the firm.

Shell shock

Another company that saw turmoil in the boardroom in the past year was the venerable Anglo-Dutch firm, Royal Dutch Shell.

The company admitted its accounts had overstated its oil and gas reserves by 20%. In February, company chairman Phil Watts offered an apology but not a resignation.

"I'm not going to resign. I'm determined to see this thing through," he said at the time.

"It's come up on my watch. We're going to put it right, and I'm very pleased to say that I have the wholehearted support of both of the boards Shell Transport and Trading and Royal Dutch to lead Shell through what is a very difficult patch."

A few weeks later Mr Watts resigned.

Shell later agreed a $150m settlement to see off claims by regulators in London and New York.

But the bad news for Shell was offset by the windfall profits from a soaring crude oil price.

A boom in demand for oil from China, plus nervousness about the Middle East situation, contributed to a rise to a peak of $56 a barrel for New York light crude oil, though it was back at around $40 a barrel by the year end.

It was not a climate for share prices to boom. New York's Dow Jones index gained only marginally for the year, leaving many investors who put money into shares at the market peak five years ago still nursing losses.

The Dow remains 10% below its all-time high. The lesson is that investors need patience as well as luck.

Listen to World Business Report's Year in Review
"Disney's merger with ABC has not done well for shareholders."

Disney settles disclosure charges
21 Dec 04 |  Business
Opec states to press for oil cuts
10 Dec 04 |  Middle East
Profits rise as Shell unites board
28 Oct 04 |  Business
Microsoft waits for court ruling
01 Oct 04 |  Business



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