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Judge adds two years to Microsoft antitrust deal

Justice Dept. gets settlement term extension due to company's slowness in providing rivals with documentation.

WASHINGTON--A federal judge on Wednesday signed off on a two-year extension on the term of Microsoft's landmark antitrust settlement with the government.

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who approved the initial settlement in 2002, said that "it sounds, at least on paper, like it's the way to go."

Kollar-Kotelly said she only questioned why both parties hadn't made the suggestion earlier, deeming the extension "the perfect solution."

As part of its regular status reports to the judge, the Justice Department last week called for an extension of certain parts of the final judgment reached by Microsoft and the government, shifting its end date from November 2007 to 2009. Microsoft agreed to the idea, leaving both sides to await the judge's approval at an already-scheduled status conference.

The regulators said in their court filing that they were concerned Microsoft was moving too slowly in delivering technical documentation to rivals licensing its Windows communication protocols. Kollar-Kotelly had echoed those concerns at a recent status conference in her courtroom. The government was careful to note, however, that it did not believe the company had "willfully violated" those provisions of the judgment.

Attorneys for the federal government and the state plaintiffs repeated those sentiments during the two-hour court proceedings on Wednesday. "There seems to be a genuine concern on Microsoft's part to make this happen as fast as possible," said Renata Hesse, a Justice Department lawyer.

Stephen Houck, a lawyer for the group of California plaintiffs, blamed the delays described in the court filings on "insufficient planning at the outset of the program" but acknowledged the company has "made a greater commitment to doing this the way it should be done" in recent months.

The software maker set up the Microsoft Communications Protocol Program to comply with its 2002 consent decree from the Bush administration. The program is designed to aid third-party developers in creating software that works with Windows, through licensing access to protocols. According to Microsoft, it currently has 31 licensees.

Microsoft attorney Charles "Rick" Rule described the difficulties the company had encountered in finding engineers familiar enough with the protocols to perform the documentation work, deeming the project "new" and "unprecedented" in the level of knowledge and resources required.

"The company has recognized that documenting and licensing (protocols) is now going to be part of the business process going forward, regardless of the decree," Rule said.

The approval of the settlement extension means that Microsoft will begin rewriting substantial portions of its technical documentation and devising a new plan to validate its accuracy. It has designated the head of its server and tools business, Bob Muglia, to oversee that process--a move that the regulators praised as a sign of Redmond's seriousness. The major question that remained at Wednesday's hearing was how long the task will take.

Addressing the judge on Wednesday, Muglia said he thought the timetable would be "measured in months, not years" but added, "It's never the case that you can say on an engineering basis that something will (be) complete on a given date."

Kollar-Kotelly said she was concerned that Microsoft's efforts to undertake a similar documentation project required by the European Commission could cause the U.S. version to get "shortchanged." She warned the company to alert her "immediately" if any conflicts arose across the Atlantic that would complicate the process at home.

"I want to make sure we have the resources to get this done," she said, adding that the project has "accomplished an enormous amount of things" in recent months.

In agreeing to the proposed extension, Microsoft said last week that it planned to create a new "interoperability lab," in which licensees can test and de-bug their protocols and receive assistance from Microsoft engineers.

The company also agreed that even if the final judgment expires in 2009, it will continue to license the technology that it currently is required to offer through Nov. 11, 2012. Companies would be able to license the technology for a minimum of five years.

At the same time, the Justice Department last week dismissed antitrust concerns over Microsoft's plans for Windows Vista, including a recent outcry from Google over a new search box that is part of Internet Explorer 7.

Near the end of Wednesday's conference, Kollar-Kotelly pressed the regulators to explain their reasoning in arriving at that conclusion. "I didn't quite figure out in this instance why it got resolved and why there wasn't a problem here," she said.

Noting that Google had never formally lodged a complaint with the feds, Hesse explained what she assured the judge was a "simple" process for changing the default search engine to something other than MSN in the new software. Kollar-Kotelly appeared satisfied with that justification.

The parties plan to continue filing status reports and are scheduled to make their next appearance before the judge in September.

CNET's Ina Fried contributed to this report.