Though accusations of nefarious conduct hurled at Microsoft by RealNetworks over the last few days may have been overstated, the larger issue of how software is controlled certainly concerns smaller companies vying for revenue in Microsoft's shadow, not to mention consumers.
The verbal sparring between the two companies took another turn yesterday, as RealNetworks, the Software Publishers Association, and 19 other companies proposed standards for software installation. The group hopes to establish ways to tell users when software being installed on their PCs conflicts with software already on the machine, in an effort to tilt the balance of power away from Microsoft.
The crux of the matter is the issue of how Windows defines which applications become default items. In short, how does one choose whether to use Netscape's Navigator or Microsoft's Internet Explorer, a Lotus word processor or Microsoft Word, or, in this case, Microsoft's Media Player or RealNetworks' RealPlayer?
In some respects, the question is part and parcel of the larger Justice Department suit against Microsoft. Since Microsoft produces the operating system, it seemingly has the power to control whether and when other applications are used. In the case of RealNetworks, the worry is that Microsoft could make its own viewer the application of choice for receiving video and audio, and eventually push RealNetworks' off the competitive landscape.
This isn't the first time this has happened. There are a number of examples demonstrating that the installation of Microsoft software makes it the default application; after the change, many users tend to stick with it day in and day out.
For example, even in the Netscape file directory, it is possible for a user to click on a file such as a graphical image or Web page and the file is opened up in Internet Explorer--not Navigator, which can almost act as a prod for the user to switch. Users have written to CNET News.com telling of other instances when Microsoft applications seem to suddenly take over files from another program.
"Since Internet Explorer 4 does the same thing to Netscape Navigator/Communicator, does that mean they're buggy, too?" one reader wrote in an email.
Many of these changes are made to an arcane, but extremely critical, database inside Windows called the registry. Consumers who blithely make the switch--gently nudged by behind-the-scenes changes to the registry--are affected, as are those who have paid to use software such as RealNetworks and are thereby inconvenienced.
Microsoft says it is easy to make a choice. "If a consumer wants to use RealPlayer instead of Windows Media Player (and according to RealNetworks, millions download RealPlayer each month), they can launch RealPlayer and view streaming media content through RealPlayer. Again, Microsoft's Windows Media Player does not disable or delete RealNetwork?s software which is already or subsequently installed on a user?s machine," Microsoft said in response to accustations from RealNetworks' Glaser.
But the pressing matter for Rob Glaser's RealNetworks--and other software companies that compete with Microsoft--is that his company's very existence is affected by Microsoft's ability to control the way users interact with Web content.
Should users always be notified when an application is attempting to set itself as the default viewer? Or is Microsoft simply making the computer easier to use?
The software giant is now offering site creators the ability to integrate multimedia content into the Web page itself, with new versions of its browser software able to play back audio and video without a separate player component. With multimedia content easier to use, the idea is that consumers will more readily adopt these new features in increasing numbers.
But Glaser contends that Microsoft's Windows Media Player intentionally "disables" RealNetworks' RealPlayer software, making the user experience easier when they are only using Microsoft applications.
As it stands, consumers aren't normally making choices about which programs are used to view Web content unless they are proactive about maintaining relatively acrane computer settings. And it's the goal of companies like Microsoft to make the user experience simple, which means not losing them to other sites because their Web usage requires plug-ins and viewers that take time to download.
Whether the decision will be made by the courts, Congress, or consumers is an open question.