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Microsoft discloses more Windows code

As part of its pending settlement with the Justice Department, the software behemoth releases information vital for third-party developers to create software that works well with Windows.

4 min read
Microsoft on Tuesday disclosed technical information vital to allowing third-party developers to create software that works well with Windows.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company released the information as part of its pending settlement with the Justice Department and nine of 18 states. The settling parties are waiting for a federal judge to either approve or reject the November agreement.

The software titan posted the information on the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) Web site one day ahead of the information's scheduled Wednesday release.

Completion of the disclosure clears the way for the release of Windows XP Service Pack 1, the first major update to the operating system Microsoft launched in October. Among other things, Service Pack 1 contains a new control for setting default middleware programs, such as Web browsers and instant messaging software.

Disclosure of the technical information could rebuff long-standing criticism that Microsoft used undocumented application programming interfaces (APIs) to make the company's software work better with Windows than competitor's products. During the antitrust case, government prosecutors argued that Microsoft in fact withheld such information so its middleware programs would have an advantage over those from other companies.

Microsoft began making the technical disclosure in mid-August, through the MSDN Web site, and released the full list of 272 APIs on Tuesday. After the release of Windows XP Service Pack 1, Microsoft plans to make available a software-development kit (SDK) for taking advantage of the technical information.

"This is just another step in fulfilling our obligation under the proposed consent decree," Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler said. "The consent decree requires that we disclose the APIs before the release of (Service Pack 1), so we did it ahead of time. As we explained earlier this month, we spent a great deal of time and energy in terms of identifying and documenting these APIs. There were very few exemptions in terms of withholding them."

Tuesday's API disclosure caps a busy month, which saw the company making changes to address government concerns about competitive or consumer practices. On Aug. 5, Microsoft disclosed 113 communications protocols used by the Windows desktop operating system when working with Windows Server products. But unlike the APIs, which are available royalty free, the communications protocols must be licensed from Microsoft for an undisclosed fee.

Three days later, the software giant settled a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. The government agency concluded that Microsoft had violated its own privacy policies with regard to Passport, an online authentication system. The FTC also faulted Microsoft for potential security problems with Passport. Microsoft agreed to 20 years of government oversight of privacy policies and procedures affecting various products. Windows Media Player 9 Series, which goes into widespread public beta next week, is one of the first Microsoft applications to embody the privacy changes.

Uncertain benefits
Some analysts see the disclosure of the APIs as an important first step for leveling the playing field between middleware programs like Microsoft's media player and competing products from RealNetworks or MusicMatch, among others.

"The release of the API information along with the SDK will allow software developers to tap into the full functionality of Windows Media," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg said. "This type of broad support leads to the creation of ad hoc communities to provide features and functions not in Media Player natively and therefore helps build adoption rates" for third-party programs.

But IDC analyst Al Gillen said it may be too early to tell what good the disclosure will do, if any.

"The value this is going to have on the industry is going to be difficult to determine over the short term," Gillen said. "But you may look back five years from now and say, 'Microsoft released 270 or so APIs and 269 weren't that meaningful, but this one was picked up by this software company that leveraged it and became a superstar.' It's hard to predict what's really going to happen."

The large majority of the APIs have to do with the Windows shell, eight relate to Windows Media Player and others relate to various other operating system functions, such as networking, messaging and Web services, among others.

Independent security consultant Richard Smith said it would take some time to determine how many of the APIs were previously undisclosed or how beneficial new disclosure might be.

"You have this big pot that Microsoft developers have been throwing stuff into," Smith said. "You've 10 to 15 years of history in there. In some ways it's like an archeological dig to figure all this stuff out."

Even if some third-party developers find gems in that dig, many users might wait sometime to realize the benefits, analysts say. "It's certainly not something that's going to affect the rank-and-file users until we start seeing applications that utilize the APIs," Gillen said.

But some developers criticized Microsoft's disclosure as being too limited.

"There are still many undocumented interfaces, some of which are essential for certain types of applications," said Henk Devos, a software developer who specializes in undocumented shell APIs. He used as an example the way Internet Explorer handles the file transfer protocol (FTP).

"Other vendors do not have the information that is necessary to implement this in the same way, or to implement other protocols this way," Devos said. "I have disclosed this information myself and am using it in my Registry Explorer application."

Devos also chided Microsoft for releasing as undocumented about a dozen APIs he has had information on since 1998. He said he expected to find more such APIs after closely examining the list.

Smith also wondered about the 900 or so ActiveX controls, many of which he suspected should be disclosed under the terms of the proposed settlement agreement.