Microsoft settlement raises new issues

Although Microsoft and the federal government reached a settlement last Friday, the details of the agreement raised some important issues.

          Although Microsoft and the federal government reached a settlement last Friday, the details of the agreement raised some important issues.

          At the top of that list are the fact that Microsoft is not required to remove the browser from the base operating system and the demand that Microsoft make some of its APIs more available to competitors.

          Dwight Davis, an analyst at Summit Strategies, in Kirkland, Washington, says that the settlement, on the whole, is good for Windows and bad for Java developers.

          "It leaves the status quo pretty much in place. It unfetters Microsoft to keep feeding its core technologies into the market in high volume by bundling them into the operating system," Davis says.

          Although the IE (Internet Explorer) browser remains intact as a key piece of the operating system, PC makers are permitted to remove IE and substitute competing browsers if they so choose.

          Moving forward, particularly in the direction of Microsoft's Passport authentication and .NET My Services, the browser will be the main access point to web services.

          "They have free reign to continue toward [web services]. But I have to say that it was an unsolvable paradox about what they could and couldn't include in the OS. There's no obvious line of demarcation," Davis adds.

          Indeed, even if Microsoft has been forced to remove the browser, there is a lineup of other technologies in the operating system, Windows Media Player specifically, that are growing more controversial.

          The browser remains, but at Friday's press conference Microsoft chairman and chief aoftware architect Bill Gates shed more light on the settlement's demand that Microsoft make some of its code, specifically APIs, more available to competitors.

          Although Microsoft has some measure of control over who it gives its code to, it is required to disclose to competing developers the "technical interfaces" between that portion of the Windows code and "middleware" applications such as Windows Media Player.

          For some reason unbeknownst to several discerning technophiles, somewhere in the course of the antitrust case the term middleware was applied to browsers, email clients, media players, instant messaging software, and forthcoming related technologies.

          "So wherever that class of software from Microsoft is calling into Windows, we will disclose to third parties in a timely manner exactly what functions of the operating system are being called on. That is an absolute requirement, it is not discretionary," said Gates during Friday's press conference.

          The response of some developers to the more timely access to Windows' interfaces was positive, noting that if nothing else it will help soften the company's hard-core competitive image.

          "This sounds like Microsoft is making a concession and is taking on more responsibility. But they will also be taking on more work in terms of providing more information to people and giving [it] with more support, and also being held to task for that activity," says Paul Grayson, president and CEO of Alibre, in Richardson, Texas.

          Grayson and others noted that with the agreement now in place, there will be a lot closer scrutiny of the quality and performance of Microsoft's add-in products, such as Windows Media Player and IE, compared to that of their competitors.

          "I think people will be constantly looking at things like Media Player and Real Player and asking, 'why is Media Player running and/or looking better than Real Player?' And now there is a committee to look into things like that," Grayson said.

          To enforce some of the details of the agreement, a technical committee consisting of three independent experts with access to Microsoft's books, systems, source code, and personnel will enforce the settlement.

          "There are dangers to this agreement. The worst thing of all is this crazy technical committee. I am concerned about the predictability of the platform for ISVs and systems integrators," says Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Computer Technologies, in Washington.

          Zuck continues that PC makers being able to alter the OS will create more of a management nightmare for users and ISVs. For instance, if the Windows Gateway sells are different from the Windows Dell sells, ISVs will have to support more types of software and hardware. "What does an ISV put on its box, it runs on Dell and Gateway, but not on Compaq?" Zuck poses.

          Zuck adds that the Technical Committee may serve to give room for Microsoft's competitors to wage illegitimate complaints against the OS and, is so doing, slow innovation and product development at Microsoft.

          "If everybody in this was to be trusted, that would be great. But remember Larry Ellison was digging through trash. This is a really competitive industry, and these guys will use whatever they can to compete," Zuck adds.

          PC makers may have more help than seen at first blush, however. Although it was not detailed during the press conference to what level of the APIs Microsoft is required to give over to developers, some believe they will have to disclose not just documented and published APIs, but those that are not.

          Developers for years have contended that many of these undocumented APIs are what gives Microsoft a technical advantage in creating an application that works more hand-in-glove than those of its competitors.

          "There are sets of published APIs that Microsoft gives to everyone, but I strongly suspect they will have to give over the unpublished APIs that would give companies more equal access to the same level of programming interface that its internal developers are using," says one developer.

          Consequently, the developer believes Microsoft will either give over all of the unpublished APIs or decide to just rewrite and publish a more complete set of APIs for general availability along with new sets of documentation and/or make code samples available.

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