Group: Windows update does end run

A computer-industry trade group takes a shot at Microsoft's credibility, alleging that the newly released Windows XP Service Pack 1 violates a pending antitrust settlement.

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WASHINGTON--A computer-industry trade group took a shot at Microsoft's credibility Wednesday, alleging that the recently released Windows XP Service Pack 1 violates the software giant's pending antitrust settlement.

In a 12-page letter sent to Assistant Attorney General Charles James and to Elliot Spitzer, New York's attorney general, , a group partially funded by Microsoft competitors, charged the company with "at least six separate and ongoing violations" of one section of the proposed agreement.

The timing of the allegation could be important for drawing additional attention to a settlement reached by Microsoft, the Justice Department and nine of 18 states in the company's more than 4-year-old antitrust case. Nine other states put forward a stiffer remedy, and both settlement proposals are before U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who's expected to rule on them at any time.

Any accusation that Microsoft might not be acting in good faith could give the Justice Department pause, should Kollar-Kotelly reject the Microsoft-DOJ proposal.

"One of the decisions facing the Justice Department is, do they join Microsoft's appeal of (Kollar-Kotelly's) decision if she rejects the proposed settlement," said Rich Gray, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based attorney following the trial. "I'm not convinced the Justice Department would oppose the decision."

In its attack, ProComp focused on a section of the settlement that requires that Windows users be given the option of removing icons for included Microsoft middleware from the Windows desktop or Start Menu. The included middleware is Internet Explorer, Windows Messenger, Windows Media Player, Outlook Express and Microsoft's version of the Java Virtual Machine. Manufacturers of competing products say Microsoft uses its control of the dominant desktop operating system, including such placement of icons, to give its programs an advantage.

Last week, Microsoft released Service Pack 1, the first collection of bug fixes for Windows XP. The update includes a new middleware control, "Set Program Access and Defaults," designed to hide or remove access to the five products. The control also would let consumers set access to competing products, such as Netscape 7 or MusicMatch 7.2.

Microsoft off the mark
But ProComp sharply criticized Microsoft's implementation of the tool, arguing that the company did not make "even a good faith effort to comply with the letter, not to mention the spirit" of the settlement proposal.

The Washington, D.C.-based trade group, which is partially funded by AOL Time Warner, Sun Microsystems and other Microsoft competitors, argued that Microsoft's distribution mechanism for the service pack is the first violation of the pending settlement.

"Service Pack 1 for Windows XP itself is not readily accessible to consumers, and thus the mechanism purportedly settling the antitrust case is, by definition, not readily accessible," ProComp wrote in the letter.

Consumers have three choices for obtaining the service pack. The first is to use Windows XP's Automatic Update feature to retrieve and install a 30MB file. ProComp noted that the time for retrieval, as stated by Microsoft, would be 1.25 hours over a standard dial-up connection.

The group also noted that to use Windows Update to retrieve the file, Microsoft's own Internet Explorer is required. Consumers can't use an alternative browser. The battle between Internet Explorer and Netscape Communications' Netscape Navigator browser was the spark that lit the whole .

In addition, consumers hoping to install the service pack on more than one computer would have to download a larger 134MB file that, according to Microsoft, would take 5.5 hours to download over a standard dial-up connection.

Assuming that the size of that part of the update required by the settlement is relatively small compared to the entire service pack, "it is beyond ridiculous, pursuant to an antitrust settlement with the United States government," that the relevant files are not easily obtained, ProComp charged.

Service Pack 1 is also available on CD from Microsoft for a $9.95 shipping and handling charge. Microsoft "would now purport to come in compliance with the law by charging consumers for the privilege of using a legal product, conceivably yielding Microsoft tens of millions of dollars in new revenue," ProComp wrote.

Microsoft, however, took issue with the group's claims.

"We had a whole beta process for Service Pack 1 where we sought and received feedback from industry and government," said Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler. "It's unfortunate, but hardly surprising, that this group, which is backed by our competitors, chose to play politics rather than participate in the process."

Regarding the ease with which consumers can get their hands on Service Pack 1, Desler said, "SP1 is a critical update. In addition to Set Program Access and Defaults, SP1 contains critical security updates and other things. It's easily available and in wide distribution."

The Justice Department could not be reached for comment.

Further allegations
ProComp said Microsoft's second violation is that Service Pack 1 neglects to provide Start Menu access to the middleware control, and doesn't include a short-cut icon to the control on the desktop.

The third violation, ProComp charges, is that the middleware control is not intuitive and comes with no Help file for understanding how to use it.

One software developer contacted by CNET News.com agreed with this assertion. The developer asked not to be identified.

"Everything about 'Set Program Access and Defaults' says consumers are unwelcome here," the developer said. "It's a barren place, compared to the rest of Windows XP, bereft of simple instructions or extended Help.

The fourth violation alleged by ProComp shifts to Windows 2000, which, with the release of Service Pack 3, was updated with a leaner version of the middleware control.

In the letter, ProComp emphasized that the middleware controls installed with the two service packs are "substantially different." The trade group contended that the Windows 2000 version "is substantially less intuitive than (the one) in Windows XP."

In the fifth alleged violation, ProComp said the updated Windows XP's My Music folder called up Internet Explorer for online shopping, even after the group had selected Netscape as the default browser and had hidden access to IE.

"We are astonished that Microsoft would so blatantly override consumer choice," ProComp stated in the letter.

The group's allegation regarding a sixth violation rapped Microsoft for failing to include in the middleware control an option to disable Microsoft's .Net Framework Common Language Runtime, an alternative to Sun's Java Virtual Machine.

Although Microsoft released the technology long after signing the proposed settlement, the Common Language Runtime meets the standard set by the agreement for determining what future middleware products would be covered by the deal, ProComp said.

ProComp concluded its letter by contending that Microsoft's compliance with the discussed middleware section of the pending settlement "is hopelessly inadequate and misleading and designed almost certainly not to help the (Justice) Department achieve its stated remedial objectives."

"We're fully committed to implementing the proposed settlement agreement," Microsoft's Desler said. "We'll work closely with government and industry to ensure its success."