Judge OKs new Microsoft antitrust deadline

Redmond and the Justice Department earn formal approval to extend parts of their deal until November 2009--or longer.

WASHINGTON--A federal judge has granted a two-year extension of portions of the landmark antitrust agreement reached by U.S. and state government plaintiffs with Microsoft.

At a periodic status conference here on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly granted formal approval to the extension, saying she was satisfied with the parties' justifications for the extra time. The judge also said she would sign off, as expected, on the changes to the final judgment, which she initially approved in 2002.

Last week, the Justice Department and Microsoft filed a joint motion seeking an extension until Nov. 12, 2009, of provisions of the settlement relating to the Microsoft Communications Protocol Program. The MCPP, a requirement of the 2002 antitrust settlement, is designed to help third-party developers in creating software that works with Windows.

Keeping tabs on the MCPP documentation effort has become the central focus of federal and state prosecutors and the judge, who all recently criticized Microsoft for dragging its feet on compliance. Microsoft is undertaking a similar project to comply with orders in Europe.

Under the modified agreement, the government would have the "unilateral" ability to ask the court to extend the provisions related to the MCPP up to 2012. The remaining portions of the settlement, which relate to other licensing and middleware obligations, would expire as scheduled on Nov. 12, 2007.

U.S. Department of Justice attorney Aaron Hoag told the judge Thursday that the government has "no substantive complaints" about Microsoft's performance in the expiring areas. The company has fully resolved, for instance, a situation last fall in which it acknowledged it had circulated a draft marketing plan that would have forced portable-music player makers to exclude rival media player software from CDs packaged with their devices.

The judge's action on Thursday was largely a procedural step. The government, in agreement with Microsoft, had already aired its plans to seek the modifications at the last status conference in May, and Kollar-Kotelly had already voiced her support.

Keeping to schedule
The revised agreement also orders Microsoft, unless otherwise ordered by the court, to keep Robert Muglia, senior vice president for the company's server and tools unit, in charge of overseeing an ongoing rewrite of the technical documentation for MCPP licensees.

Muglia, appearing before Judge Kollar-Kotelly on Thursday, said Microsoft has now assigned 250 people to the project and "placed this as the highest priority in the company." Earlier this week, Microsoft proposed a new MCPP schedule that would see licensees receiving a first version of the technical documentation by May 2007, subject to further revision and testing.

"I do believe the schedule is achievable," Muglia said. "It is not without risk, however, because any engineering schedule is not without risk."

The state and federal prosecutors said Thursday that they remained "surprised" at the length of time Microsoft estimates the rewrite project will take and plan to keep a close watch. "It's hard to know at this point how realistic this is," said Stephen Houck, an attorney for the California plaintiffs. "Or is it something being imposed on the engineers because they want to make us happy?"

Judge Kollar-Kotelly and the prosecutors said they had also taken notice of the dozen guiding principles that general counsel Brad Smith laid out at a National Press Club appearance in July. The voluntary tenets were designed to reassure the public that Microsoft is committed to competition and consumer choice, the company said.

"There has certainly been a lot of progress made since the late 1990s," Kollar-Kotelly said. "But there is still a lot to be done."

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