Expert: Windows can be broken into parts

Princeton professor Andrew Appel, testifying in federal court, says so-called middleware can be safely removed from Microsoft's Windows operating system.

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update WASHINGTON--The first of two expert witnesses testified in federal court Tuesday that so-called middleware can be safely removed from Microsoft's Windows operating system.

Andrew Appel, the 14th witness in the proceedings to determine a remedy for Microsoft's antitrust violations and a computer science professor at Princeton University, began his testimony here late Tuesday before a sparsely filled courtroom.

As with other witnesses, Appel submitted written testimony to the court, after which he was cross-examined by a Microsoft lawyer. Appel is the second-to-last witness that trustbusters will present before Microsoft begins its portion of the proceedings.

Nine states and the District of Columbia are seeking stiffer sanctions than those reached in a November settlement by Microsoft, the Justice Department and nine other states. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly has yet to rule on the settlement, which she can either approve or reject.

Microsoft is expected to continue its cross-examination of Appel on Wednesday. The company will likely attack inconsistencies between his deposition and written testimony, and also challenge his expertise.

One of the sanctions sought by the states would compel Microsoft to distribute a version of Windows XP without middleware, which includes Web browsing, instant messaging and streaming media technologies.

"It is my opinion that this remedy provision is technically feasible, based in part on the fact Microsoft has already performed substantial parts of this engineering task in creating its Windows XP Embedded operating system product," Appel said in his written testimony.

Windows XP Embedded is a modular version of the operating system designed to run on a variety of devices. Manufacturers, for example, have the option of installing only the components needed for the devices; that way, a handheld device not needing media playback technology could run the operating system without that code installed.

In its June 2001 ruling, a seven-judge Court of Appeals panel found that Microsoft's commingling of Internet Explorer and Windows code made it more difficult for Netscape Communications, now owned by AOL Time Warner, to compete with the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant. Microsoft has long contended that the browser and other middleware code cannot be removed from the operating system.

"Microsoft has contended all along that Section 1 (of the states' proposed remedy) cannot be done," Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler said Wednesday. "It cannot be done. You cannot create modular versions of Windows. You cannot take code out without degradation, without crippling the machine."

Desler described the states' use of Windows XP Embedded as "a red herring. This is something that has limited functionality for things such as slot machines and cash registers. This is something with limited functionality, and comparing it to the full operating system is simply wrong."

Appel disagreed. "I am of the opinion that the code underlying Microsoft's software platform products is most likely written in modular fashion," he testified. If this is true, "the modules serving to support Microsoft's middleware should be removable without causing disruption to the functionality of the remaining operating system."

As an example, Appel noted that Windows XP Embedded "contains the same binary files as Windows XP Professional."

His conclusion: "Microsoft's technical ability to create XP Embedded?is another piece of evidence not only that Section 1 of the states' remedy is technically feasible, but that Microsoft has already done much of the engineering work necessary to comply with this provision."

Disclosure inadequate
Much of Appel's written testimony focused on middleware and how much technical information, mainly APIs (application programming interfaces), must be disclosed to ensure competing software works well with Windows.

"Middleware, described in basic terms, is software that exposes one or more of its APIs to provide services to other software," Appel wrote. He touted the benefits of component-software middleware such as Sun Microsystems' Java, which, among other things, is less susceptible to viruses than applications running directly on the operating system.

Another advantage to middleware involves portability of applications. If applications are written to the middleware, rather than the operating system, they can be more easily ported to other operating systems. That is contingent on the middleware being able to run on other operating systems, Appel testified.

But "in order to develop software that can interoperate with a certain software platform, such as an operating system, software developers must have access to sufficient technical data--such as APIs and protocols--of that operating system to allow a program to utilize the functionality provided by the operating system," Appel testified.

Appel noted that the definition of middleware used by Microsoft's remedy proposal to the court is far too narrow and wouldn't give software developers adequate access to the APIs they need to write applications.

While the proposed settlement with the U.S. Justice Department mandates more disclosure of middleware APIs, Appel described the provisions as woefully inadequate. Microsoft submitted that settlement as its proposed remedy in the current proceeding.

Microsoft's remedy "does not appear to require disclosure of the significant amount of other technical information that is necessary to achieve proper functionality and interoperability between the operating system product and the software that runs on it," Appel testified.

He charged that nothing in the remedy "appears to require Microsoft to disclose to any degree of technical specificity beyond what Microsoft discloses today."

Appel noted that without this information, software developers could not "create competing software, for example, middleware that supports the applications that run on Microsoft middleware."

He also faulted what he described as "an unjustified security exemption" that would "significantly restrict" Microsoft's technical disclosure.

Appel identified some of the information Microsoft should disclose, such as file formats used by the company's Office applications. Indeed, he characterized the productivity suite itself as middleware. He also faulted Microsoft's proposed remedy for not providing a provision to disclose APIs used by Office to interact with Windows.

In their remedy, the litigating states want Microsoft to license Office through auction for use on competing operating systems. The states see Microsoft's market dominance in office productivity suites combined with its Windows monopoly as what antitrust experts refer to as the "applications barrier to entry."

Appel also addressed concerns that the states' level of code disclosure would allow the cloning of Windows.

"It is my opinion, based on careful review of its disclosure terms, that the states' remedy does not allow such copying," he testified. That provision would prevent the full disclosure of communications protocols.

He described the approach as "security through obscurity," which is based on the concept that security can be protected by the nondisclosure of information.