Same Old Microsoft, Different Service Pack

eLABorations: The company is still only pretending to play nice with third-party middleware.

Microsoft has agreed to start playing nice(er) when it comes to middleware—a term thats come to comprise applications like Web browsers, instant messaging programs, media players and Java virtual machines.

The principal instrument for making this new friendliness a fact is the Set Program Access and Defaults dialog that Windows XP Service Pack 1 adds to the Add or Remove Programs utility in Windows, a fairly straightforward-seeming piece of code that purports to make it easy for users or OEMs to select 1.) an all-Microsoft set of middleware applications; 2.) a no-Microsoft set of middleware applications; or 3.) a mixed set of middleware applications.

Sound good? It sounded good to me, too. Theres only one problem: the darned thing doesnt do anything.

OK, thats not quite true. The utility does a pretty good job of accomplishing item No. 1, but that wasnt quite the point of this, was it?

Its disappointing, too, because between my recent columns on the flaws in Windows permissions scheme and on Microsofts donated PC chicanery, I was looking at this column as a chance to say something positive about computings big bro from Redmond.

After all, I dont buy into the argument that Microsoft should be forced to excise functionality from its software in order to make Windows appear to be an open platform. Windows is a closed-source product, and the sooner we all get realistic about that fact, the better off well all be.

Anyway, heres how my eXPerience with the feature went:

I installed the service pack on two machines running Windows XP—a brand-new one from HP, pre-installed with a media player from Music Match; and a box Ive been using for a while, and on which Id installed the Mozilla Web browser.

On each machine, I clicked on the Set Program Access and Defaults, which was prominently placed in the machines Start Menus. I then selected the no-MS option. I figured something might be wrong when the resulting dialogs had nothing to say about MusicMatch or Mozilla, but I forged ahead and clicked OK.

The utility dutifully hid the Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player icons from my desktops and Quick Launch toolbars. The MSN Messenger icon in my system tray stayed put.

On the Mozilla machine, I opened an HTML file, and sure enough, up came Internet Explorer.

To be fair, this is the first beta of the XP service pack, but Id assumed that the utility could manage to figure out that Mozilla or MusicMatch was installed. Its not as though I was trying to configure my system to use some obscure, home-grown middleware programs, although I cant see any reason why it shouldnt do that, either.

I guess Ill have to postpone that positive column a bit—hopefully to no later than when the final version of Service Pack 1 is ready for download.

Would the Set Program Access and Defaults utility (if it worked) be enough for Microsoft to claim third-party-friendly status—at least for middleware? Drop me a line at