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Is Windows still relevant?

CNET's Charles Cooper says recent upset over Vista should put a rest to that lingering question.

In the increasingly Google-YouTube-Web 2.0 age we inhabit, it's become fashionable to dismiss Windows as a relic.

Ask around the office. You'll hear the Gen Xers sneer about how Microsoft's operating system is, well, so yesterday. Even a fair number of IT graybeards are warming to the notion that the times, they are a changing.

And so they are. Before closing the books on the Age of Windows, however, let's not get too caught up in the fashion of the moment. The water-cooler crowd may take a dim view of "Win-doze" for all the right reasons. Still, Microsoft's archrivals continue to view it as a product with a potentially make-or-break impact on their businesses.

In fact, two of them--Adobe Systems and Symantec--are lobbying European regulators to get tough on Microsoft. The European Union already has an unresolved antitrust dispute with Microsoft, and Adobe and Symantec would be silly not to play that card for all it's worth.

So this is what they're doing.

The U.S. software makers reportedly want regulators to prevent Microsoft from incorporating competing software for reading and creating electronic documents into the upcoming Vista operating system. Just as bad, from their perspective, Microsoft would include the applications for free. (Symantec has also made the rounds, telling European regulators that Microsoft's designs for Vista will put major hurt on competing computer-security software makers.)

Microsoft's archrivals continue to view it as a product with potentially make-or-break impact on their businesses.

For a moment, I thought I had been transported back in time--only the names had been changed. In 1997, the roster of tech companies complaining about Microsoft's behavior was led by the likes of Netscape and Sun Microsystems, with IBM, Intel, Apple Computer and a host of other Silicon Valley names pulling up the caboose. Joel Klein, then the Justice Department's antitrust chief, finally was persuaded to file the government's antitrust case, and the rest is history.

Nowadays, it's the European Union's Neelie Kroes, who figures as Microsoft's chief nemesis. She's warned Microsoft not to design Vista in ways that would screw the competition. The EU has already stuck Microsoft with more than $600 million in fines. Kroes imposed an additional $350 million because she said Microsoft subsequently refused to change its business practices.

All because of an operating system that so many have deemed to be yesterday's news.

The reality is that Windows remains as important as ever. Web-based AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) applications may be the tech world's future, but there's a long transition between now and then. In the meantime, software vendors understandably dread any plans to "improve feature functionality" in Windows because they remember Microsoft's history.

At the risk of showing my age, I still recall when memory managers, firewalls, hard drive compression and defragmentation software, and any number of system tools, were sold separately (not to mention, of course, the Web browser). Most of those products--as well as the companies behind them--no longer exist because Microsoft has thrown everything it can inside Windows.

I can only imagine that Kroes is getting an earful about Vista. The security guys are seeing red because users will naturally gravitate toward the new Windows security console Microsoft designed for Vista. There's no longer any way that a Symantec or a McAfee can disable that feature. What's more, Europe is home to several antivirus software firms--such as F-Secure, Panda Software and Sophos--that share the same concerns.

Meanwhile, Vista's XML Paper Specification could pose tough new competition for Adobe's portable document format. The fact that Microsoft will include free software for reading those documents threatens quite a lucrative business for Adobe.

Companies usually are loath to air their dirty laundry--especially regarding Microsoft--but the simmering frustration with the way events are heading was on display earlier this week. McAfee claimed in a full-page ad in the Financial Times that Microsoft was purposely trying to hamstring security software makers by denying them access to the core of the operating system.

Only a week earlier, Symantec claimed that Microsoft had withheld important application program interfaces that security makers need to make sure their products are compatible with the anti-spyware product that will be bundled into Vista.

For the record, Microsoft disagrees with the accuracy of these portrayals and says it's maintaining close contact with regulators in Europe to ensure everything is in order.

However this gets resolved, the dustup speaks volumes about the true state of Windows' relevance. Looks like "yesterday's product" still has a few more tomorrows left.