Microsoft agrees to change Vista desktop search

Changes aim to address Google antitrust concerns. Also: Redmond talks for first time about when service pack will arrive.

Microsoft agreed Tuesday to make changes to the desktop search feature in Windows Vista in an effort to assuage Google and head off a further antitrust battle with U.S. regulators.

In a filing made jointly with the Justice Department on Tuesday night, Microsoft said it would change the search feature as part of the first service pack to Windows Vista. In the filing, Microsoft talked for the first time about when that service pack would arrive, saying a beta version will come by the end of the year.

Under the agreement, Microsoft will create a mechanism whereby both computer makers and individuals will be able to choose a default desktop search program, much as they can choose a rival browser or media player, even though those technologies are built into Windows.

"Plaintiffs are collectively satisfied that this agreement will resolve any issues the complaint may raise under the Final Judgments, provided that Microsoft implements it as promised," regulators said in the filing made with the Judge overseeing Microsoft's consent decree.

Microsoft said it too, was glad to reach an accord.

"We're pleased we were able to reach an agreement with all the states and the Justice Department that addresses their concerns so that everyone can move forward," Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said in a statement.

A federal prosecutor said that the move satisfied the U.S. government as well as 17 state attorneys general and that the software maker was adequately addressing antitrust concerns raised by Google.

"In addition to reaching an agreement with Microsoft to resolve any issues about desktop search under the final judgments, the (Justice Department) has worked to ensure that Microsoft fully discloses and provides complete technical documentation for all protocols covered by the decrees," Thomas O. Barnett, assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, said in a statement.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown said Tuesday that he had become concerned with allegations that the desktop search feature in Vista was in violation of the antitrust accord Microsoft reached in 2002. In a statement, he offered qualified praise for the agreement.

"This agreement--while not perfect--is a positive step towards greater competition in the software industry. It will enhance the ability of consumers to select the desktop search tool of their choice," Brown said.

In a statement, Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond said that "Microsoft's current approach to Vista desktop search clearly violates the consent decree and limits consumer choice.

"We are pleased that as a result of Google's request that the consent decree be enforced, the Department of Justice and state attorneys general have required Microsoft to make changes to Vista," he said. "These remedies are a step in the right direction, but they should be improved further to give consumers greater access to alternate desktop search providers."

Details of the agreement began to dribble out ahead of the filing on Tuesday.

Google first expressed concern over Vista's desktop search feature last year. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the U.S. Justice Department was siding with Microsoft, while some state regulators, including Connecticut's attorney general, said they wanted to look further into Google's concerns.

Last week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer dismissed Google's complaints, saying at the Detroit Economic Club that the rival's objections were "baseless."

"We continue to comply with the with the U.S. government in recognition to the findings around our position with Windows," Ballmer said, according to Reuters. "We think all claims to the contrary are baseless."

This is not the only antitrust skirmish going on involving Microsoft and Google, which have become increasingly fierce rivals. Microsoft has sought to get regulators to take a closer look at Google's planned acquisition of DoubleClick. However, the Federal Trade Commission is also reportedly evaluating Microsoft's planned $6 billion purchase of Aquantive.

As part of the pact, Microsoft is required to do three things in relation to desktop search. First, it has to add the mechanism for computer makers and users to change the default desktop search. Second, that default search program "will be launched whenever Windows launches a new top-level window to provide search results." That includes the Start menu, when a user selects to display results in a new window. However, in areas, such as the Windows Explorer, where Microsoft includes a search bar, Vista "will continue to display the search results using the internal Vista desktop search functionality." Microsoft, however, must also add a link that, when clicked, will launch the default desktop search program and display that program's results.

Finally, Microsoft will "inform" software makers, computer makers and users that "the desktop search index in Vista is designed to run in the background and cede precedence over computing resources to any other software product, including third-party desktop search products and their respective search indices," according to the filing.

Microsoft must emphasize that there is no technical reason why computer makers and users cannot install rival desktop search programs "even if those products maintain separate indices from that operated by Windows." Also, Microsoft will be required to provide the technical details to enable rivals to write programs that minimize the performance impact of Vista's own search index.

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