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Judge raps Microsoft for antitrust 'foot-dragging'

Attorney for state government also says complaint about forthcoming Windows Vista will be investigated.

WASHINGTON--A federal judge criticized Microsoft on Tuesday for what she called "foot-dragging" in regard to the company's compliance with an antitrust settlement.

At a quarterly status conference about the compliance mandates, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly echoed the U.S. Department of Justice's latest concerns that the software giant isn't moving fast enough to develop technical documentation for use by licensees of the Microsoft Communications Protocol Program.

That program, one of the requirements of the 2002 consent decree that Microsoft reached with the DOJ, was intended to blunt the company's advantage over third-party developers in building server software that works with Windows. According to Microsoft, 26 companies currently license the communications protocols, and a dozen products using the technology have been shipped so far.

But the DOJ charges that Microsoft has let unresolved bugs with the technical documentation project--known as Troika--pile up, slowing down its delivery to licensees.

"I want to emphasize that I do expect the backlog to be reduced," Kollar-Kotelly told the company.

Microsoft, for its part, said it's doing the best it can given a limited pool of those technically skilled enough to carry out the project and is actively searching for new hires. It said it still plans to ship a prerelease version of the Troika project to licensees by the end of the week.

Furthermore, attorney Charles Rule said, Microsoft's recent proposal to make some of its Windows Server source code available at no extra cost to licensees--what he called "exposing the DNA of (the company's) crown jewels"--should speak loudly of Microsoft's commitment to obeying the government's orders.

"I don't know if it's fear or love, but it's a question of something Microsoft knows it has to do and will do," Rule told the judge.

Jay Himes, a lead attorney for a group of state plaintiffs, said making the source code available would help streamline some problem-solving as the technical documentation program undergoes testing. But, he said, "however useful it may be, it's not a silver bullet."

The company's progress with Windows Vista, the successor to Windows XP projected for release later this year, also drew a number of questions from Kollar-Kotelly.

The DOJ mentioned briefly in its that it had received one complaint about a proposed interface for the operating system. Known as the "Welcome Center," it appears a few screens into a user's first boot-up of the operating system and presents setup options and commercial offers from Microsoft and other equipment manufacturers.

"There seems to be a general unease" about the operating system, said Steven Houck, a lead attorney for the California plaintiff group. He said he understood that the complaint's filer likely has its "bottom line" in mind but vowed that a full investigation of the complaint would take place "to make sure Microsoft is not using its monopoly further entrench its monopoly."

Since the evaluation remains at an early stage, "we really don't have anything to say about it now," Microsoft's Rule said. "But we are confident the Vista we have planned is compliant."

Microsoft was instructed to continue filing monthly status reports with the judge. Its next court appearance on the matter is scheduled for May.