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Microsoft holds out antitrust olive branch

The software maker offers to extend a licensing program, key to its antitrust deal with the Justice Department, aiming to answer criticism that the program is taking too long to get going.

Microsoft has offered to prolong a program that licenses some Windows communications standards to rivals, aiming to address criticism that the program has taken too long to get working.

The protocol licensing agreement is one of the key components of Microsoft's landmark 2001 settlement with the Department of Justice and several states. However, regulators have repeatedly expressed concerns over the terms of the licensing program. Microsoft, in turn, has adjusted the program several times.

In a status conference before a federal judge in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Microsoft lawyers said the company would be willing to extend the program until November 2009, two years later than called for by the original terms of the deal.

"The Department of Justice and states did express some concerns over the program, about the amount of time it has taken to address some concerns," Microsoft spokeswoman Stacy Drake said. "Given that, we offered to extend the protocol licensing program for two years."

In court, the Justice Department indicated that it was pleased with the two-year extension. The department had expressed concern that the length of time it had taken to address concerns in the program was cutting into the five years that the technology was supposed to be widely available. It also noted that Microsoft also plans to make more protocols available for licensing--those for Longhorn Server, the next version of its server operating system.

Microsoft has modified the program several times in recent months, most recently in January, but also last August.

"We've made a number of substantive changes to the program, as well as numerous refinements and adjustments that really underscore our commitment to making the program as attractive to licensees as possible," Drake said.

So far, 14 companies have signed up for the program. Microsoft said last week that Sun Microsystems and Time Warner were among the latest companies to have joined it. Both signed up after settling their own legal disputes with the software maker. In addition, Microsoft said that digital certificate firm GeoTrust had signed on as a licensee of the Windows protocols.

Robert Lande, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, said Microsoft's move may have been aimed as much at regulators in Europe as at those here. Lande said that, through its actions, Microsoft was trying to bolster American regulators' case that the EU action is unnecessary.

"It sounds like Microsoft is just trying to throw a bone to the DOJ to reinforce the DOJ's contention that they've handled every problem in their magnificent consent order," Lande said.

Last month, the European Union imposed a record $613 million fine on Microsoft and ordered the company to disclose more Windows details to rivals and to offer a version of Windows without a bundled media player. Microsoft plans to appeal the ruling.

Lande said he does not expect the extension of the protocol licensing program will have much sway on European authorities.

"I don't think it is going to have any deterrent effect," he said. "But it is logical for them to try this."

The next quarterly status conference in the case is scheduled for July 19, with both sides due to submit a status report on July 9.