Users Wary of Microsoft Settlement

Worried remedies will not protect competition.

Microsoft Corp. is touting compliance with its pending federal antitrust settlement, but users are already complaining that even full adherence to the agreement will not protect competition in the desktop operating system market or promote choice in middleware.

By summers end, OEMs, developers and users will be able to hide or remove access to five Microsoft middleware products outlined in the settlement inked with the Department of Justice in November. When Windows XP Service Pack 1 ships next month, it will include a new add/remove program that permits users to set rival programs as defaults. A similar feature was included with Service Pack 3 for Windows 2000 Professional in the spring.

"I dont see how [SP3 for Windows 2000 Professional] enables anyone to select non-Microsoft software. Instead, the non-Microsoft software needs to have already overridden the default settings itself," said Antony Tovar, network administrator at Moss Adams LLP, in San Diego.

Microsoft officials counter that the Redmond, Wash., software developer is not responsible for providing competing software but instead for making it possible for OEMs or users to hide access to Microsoft software if rival programs have been installed.

"We do not write code for another browser or another media player," said Microsoft spokesman Jim Cullinan.

OEMs must pre-install competing software, in which case the competing program can be configured as the default option, or rival developers, such as RealNetworks Inc., must adjust their programs so that they show up as a default option when loaded.

A federal court is still weighing the efficacy of the proposed settlement, and at the same time it is considering whether stricter antitrust remedies sought by nine dissenting states are necessary. A hallmark of the dissenting states proposal is a requirement that Microsoft offer an unbundled version of Windows, in which its middleware can be fully removed.

Another stark difference between the settlement and the states proposal is that the settlement focuses narrowly on the desktop operating system market, in which Microsoft was found to have used illegal tactics to sustain a monopoly. Critics contend that remedies must also address related markets where similar tactics could be used, including server systems.

"Microsoft Service Pack 3 for Windows 2000 contains new code to allow you to change the default browser, etc.," said Tim OBrien, solution architect at the Computer Task Group Inc., in Atlanta. "Too bad this isnt the case for the server version of Windows 2000. I guess that [Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect] Bill [Gates] thinks that no one would want to use a different browser on a server?"

Microsoft last week launched a program to license 113 communications protocols—for undisclosed fees and royalties—to promote vendor interoperability. Beginning Aug. 28, it will make available for free 272 internal APIs for five of its middleware features: Explorer, Media Player, Messenger, Outlook Express and Java Virtual Machine. Under a security exemption outlined in the settlement, Microsoft is withholding one API related to the Windows File Protection system and one protocol related to network authentication.