Details trickle out about EC Vista probe

Microsoft exec says regulators noted four aspects of Windows update as raising potential anticompetition concerns.

NICE, France--A senior Microsoft executive has revealed details of the European Commission's anticompetition probe into the upcoming Windows Vista operating system.

Microsoft and the Commission have been in protracted discussions regarding Vista since March, over regulators' concerns that parts of Vista may violate anticompetition laws.

"There were four different areas where the Commission gave feedback on Vista: two security components and two other components," said Ben Fathi, corporate vice president of Microsoft's security technology unit.

The Commission was concerned that Windows Security Center would give Microsoft an unfair advantage by flashing up alerts, which would guide consumers to buying Microsoft or Microsoft-endorsed security products.

"The EC wanted vendors to have the ability to disable alerts in Security Center. They are satisfied that we've provided those APIs (application programmable interfaces) to all of our security partners. We're completely open to that," Fathi told CNET News.com sister site ZDNet UK in an interview at the RSA security show here Tuesday.

The second Vista security area causing the Commission concern is PatchGuard, the kernel protection code in 64-bit versions of the operating system. Security vendors McAfee and Symantec have protested about what they see as being banned from accessing the kernel. The Commission wanted Microsoft to disable the technology, but Microsoft refused.

"Kernel patch protection really is something we do not want to disable," Fathi said. "We told the EC this is something we are working on with our partners, going forward." Microsoft has agreed to supply its security partners with APIs for any parts of Vista, he said.

"The (provision of the) APIs was executed on promises made to the EC," Fathi said.

The Commission was also concerned about XML Paper Specification (XPS) which describes the Microsoft format and rules for distributing, archiving, rendering and processing documents created in it.

The EC wanted to make XPS an open standard. However, Microsoft brokered a compromise, whereby anyone can read or write documents using XPS. It is being distributed under a royalty-free copyright license, meaning that it can be distributed freely, once a license has been obtained. License holders must agree to a "covenant not to sue" people who use XPS.

The EC also expressed concern about default upgrades from Internet Explorer 6 to IE 7, according to Fathi. IE 7 was launched last week and is expected to be pushed out over Microsoft's Automatic Update system next month.

Microsoft was unable to confirm recent reports that the Commission was also interested in the encryption on the Vista system and in its handwriting recognition software. A Microsoft representative said the recognition software bundled with Vista would come from a third party.

The Commission said earlier this month that it does have concerns about Microsoft Vista but declined to give full details of those concerns because of the "delicate legal situation" surrounding the Vista anticompetition debate.

Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes discussed the situation with Microsoft's chief executive, Steve Ballmer, in August, when she warned that the Commission could not give Vista a "green light" before it was launched.

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reported from Nice.

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