The European Commission last year imposed a record fine on Microsoft Corp. for abusing its Windows dominance to shut out competition.
This year the Commission proceeded to put its antitrust remedies into place after an EU court gave the go-ahead. Microsoft is still appealing the case, which wont be decided for months or years.
One of the remedies required Microsoft to give European consumers a choice between Windows with Media Player included, and a version with no built-in player.
The Commission argued that this would help provide a level playing field for competitors such as RealNetworks and Apple Computer Inc..
Windows XP N was released to PC makers last week in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, with 10 more language versions coming in July. It will be available to the public next month. But none of the PC makers contacted by eWEEK said they had any plans to offer the software on PCs by default.
"We are continuing to monitor the market to see if it is in demand," said a Dell spokesperson. "We will consider things from there." Dell said most customers expect new PCs to include a media player.
Lenovo, which recently took over IBMs PC business, took a similar line.
"At present we have no plans to pre-install Windows XP N on desktops and laptops. We will continue to monitor customer demand going forward," a Lenovo spokesperson said.
Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba said much the same thing. Fujitsu-Siemens, for one, has said it will install the software by request.
PC makers may be waiting for demand to appear, but it is unclear how users could ever find out that Windows XP N exists. Major European retailers such as PC World, the UKs largest PC retailer, say they have no plans to stock the software.
Fnac, a large French department store chain, said it will test XP N in a few stores beginning in July.
For those desperate to get their hands on the operating system, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders for XP N on its UK site, with availability listed as July 1.
Amazon isnt exactly splashing out on promotion, however—the listing doesnt include an image. Searches for XP N on Amazons French and German sites were fruitless.
The Amazon.fr search does, however, turn up a book called "Windows XP pour les nuls"—"nuls" being the French equivalent of "dummies."
It was unclear whether this French connotation was considered in the naming of Windows XP N.
Microsoft originally planned to call the product Windows XP Reduced Media Edition, but the Commission ordered a name change.
When the Commission originally called on Microsoft to provide an unbundled version of Windows, several industry observers said the move was unlikely to make a difference to the market. It doesnt help that XP N sells for the same price as the standard edition.
The software may provide an opportunity for competitors such as RealNetworks to substitute their own media players at the OEM level; however, the pricing situation means such a substitution would give OEMs no price advantage, analysts noted.
"Why would these manufacturers choose to ship less functionality, especially at the same price?" said James Governor, principal analyst at RedMonk. "And what has Real been doing, that they cant persuade a single PC manufacturer to ship with them? Its up to Real to make the case, to find media partners and take that to the PC makers."
RealNetworks declined to comment on the situation, saying it is involved in Microsofts ongoing antitrust appeal.
Governor downplayed the danger that Microsoft could come to dominate media formats as it does office document formats, a danger the remedy was partly intended to address.
"At one time we imagined Sony would do that—if any company should have been able to nail content and format, it should be Sony. They have tried to do that for a long time now and theyve failed, and I dont think Microsoft will succeed either."