The software maker and the U.S. Department of Justice announced on May 12 that they had agreed to a two-year extension of the provisions related to Microsofts licensing program for communications protocols in the Windows desktop operating system.
The original judgment was set to expire in the fall of 2007, so if the extension is approved by the court, it will expire in the fall of 2009.
The announcement formed part of the latest in a series of Joint Status Reports by Microsoft and the Department of Justice to Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who issued the final consent decree in 2002.
The Department of Justices Antitrust Division, which enforces the final judgment in conjunction with antitrust enforcers from 17 states and the District of Columbia, said an extension is necessary due to the difficulties Microsoft has had in improving the technical documentation it provides to licensees.
The final judgment required that Microsoft make available to competing server software developers, on reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms, certain technology used by Microsoft to make its server operating systems interoperate with client PCs running the Windows operating system.
The judgment also required Microsoft to provide licensees with technical documentation designed to enable them to use this technology in their own server products so that those products work better with Windows.
But the Department of Justice has previously told the court it is concerned with the quality of the technical documentation provided, as well as with the length of time it is taking Microsoft to improve that documentation.
"This extension will ensure that companies interested in licensing the communications protocols receive the benefit of complete and accurate documentation for the full period of time provided by the courts final judgment," J. Bruce McDonald, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Departments Antitrust Division, said.
The European Union has also ordered Microsoft to share some communication protocols with its competitors and the Department of Justice wants the technical documentation being developed by Microsoft to be as consistent as possible, McDonald said.
Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said in a statement released on May 12 that the company had not only voluntarily agreed to the extension, but would also, even after the 2009 expiration, "continue on a voluntary basis to document and license the communications protocols in the Windows desktop operating system that are used to interoperate with Windows server operating system products."
Microsofts Smith said the licensing of these protocols would now effectively become an ongoing part of Microsofts regular product development and business processes.
"The extension of the communications protocols sections of the consent decree will enable all the parties involved to take the time necessary to establish an overarching specification that will govern the way in which technical documentation is written," he said.
Once that specification is established, Microsoft will prepare protocol documentation that conforms to it and that will build on its documentation work to date, Smith said.
"All parties agree that this is an important step in order to continue to enhance the documentation," he said.
Smith said Microsoft would also continue to make Windows source code available to licensees as a reference tool to assist in implementing the protocols, and that the company will create a new interoperability lab in which licensees can test and debug their protocols and obtain easy access to on-site Microsoft engineering assistance.
"All of these steps should enhance the quality and comprehensiveness of existing and future documentation and will assist licensees, especially for companies that are less familiar with features in Windows," Smith said.
But this is not the first time the company has promised new initiatives to appease critics and competitors of its response to both the U.S. and the European Commission judgments against it.
Earlier in 2006, Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., received lukewarm response to its offer to license all the Windows Server source code that applied to the antitrust requirements set out in the European Commission judgment.
Microsoft has also made changes to the protocol licensing program several times.
Smith said the current program has 31 licensees and "has already resulted in the release into the marketplace of a dozen products based on the use of the technical documentation. … Todays steps will ensure that the program continues throughout the foreseeable future for the benefit of these licensees, as well as other companies that may be interested in making use of it in the future," he said.
But others are not convinced. Bruce Lowry, a spokesperson for Novell, based in Provo, Utah, told eWEEK that the protocol extension and the other moves announced by Microsoft sounded promising. However, he said, "Essentially it all comes down to their implementation."
"If this truly is a step that truly makes interoperability with the Windows platform more open, transparent and easy, then we welcome that. But the proof of all this will be in the details and the way it is implemented, and that all remains to be seen," Lowry said.