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Microsoft, Glaser trade bug barbs

Microsoft says its Windows Media Player does not break RealNetworks' software, as alleged by RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser.

Microsoft and RealNetworks are locked in a public war of words over an alleged flaw that keeps multimedia software made by the two companies from working together.

Responding to statements made by RealNetworks CEO Robert Glaser in a Senate hearing Thursday, Microsoft said that its Windows Media Player does not "break" RealNetworks' RealSystemG2 player, as Glaser had claimed.

Instead, the company says that the problem demonstrated by Glaser is caused by a bug in RealNetworks' software. Both companies compete in the market for streaming software, which allows computers to receive audio and video transmissions.

In a letter sent to RealNetworks Friday, Microsoft offered a suggestion to fix the glitch. "The information in this email should enable you to easily fix the bug in your next RealPlayer G2 beta release so that it registers with Navigator the same way as the G2 Preview release did, therefore coexisting correctly with the Windows Media Player and any other products which may support these data types."

RealNetworks vehemently denied this. "RealNetworks stands by the demonstration we gave," Glaser said in a telephone press conference Friday, adding that Microsoft's assertions were "clearly inaccurate technically." Despite this insistence, however, the call was short on technical details at the crux of the controversy.

Nevertheless, Glaser was joined by several other industry figures, including Sean Cooney, chief technology officer of Digital Bitcasting, and Ken Wasch, president of the Software Publishers Association, among others.

According to Glaser, there are 16 scenarios of varied combinations of browsers and multimedia players, and the problem he demonstrated in the hearing Thursday can be replicated in 10 of them. This includes a mix of ready-to-ship software, beta versions, and the use of Navigator or Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Wasch said his association has drafted, with the help of government agencies and software companies, including Microsoft, seven competitive principles, with the prime directive being noninterference.

With Redmond controlling the vast majority of PC operating systems, "the entire software industry is dependent on a cooperative working relationship with Microsoft," he added.

"For firms that do not have to compete with Microsoft products, the relationship is often very positive," Wasch noted. "But for firms that seek to develop products that might compete with Microsoft's own offering, the relationship can be problematic."

Putting on the spin

Microsoft and RealNetworks are playing ping-pong over alleged flaws in streaming software. The blow-by-blow account:

  • RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser demonstrates at a Senate hearing how Microsoft's Windows Media Player disables a version of RealNetworks' software.

  • In his testimony, Glaser added he tried to address the problem with Microsoft but received the cold shoulder from CEO Bill Gates. "I suggest visiting the National Gallery and Smithsonian," while in Washington, Glaser said Gates told him in an email.

  • Microsoft counters that the demonstration is misleading because RealNetworks used the most recent beta version of the product and the software giant had not yet developed support for it.

  • Redmond releases an affidavit suggesting that Glaser meant to use testimony as leverage to settle a licensing dispute with Microsoft. "Glaser said that he was prepared to 'negotiate all night if that's what it takes' to come to terms with Microsoft," according to the affidavit. Glaser denies this.

  • Microsoft contends that after a day of testing RealNetworks' demo, the company has found that the problem is caused by a bug in the beta version of RealNetworks' new G2 software.

  • Glaser holds a press conference flanked by the president of the Software Publishers Association. He alleges that Microsoft's product also disables similar streaming products from rivals Xing Technology and Digital Bitcasting. Technical details are not provided, however.

    Glaser firmly stayed away from using the word "sabotage" to describe the disabling of RealNetworks' products: "I would not assert that Microsoft has a culture that engages in sabotage. I would say that Microsoft's products, as a matter of policy, disable our products and we think that that disabling is wrong and needs to be stopped."

    Cooney elaborated that his company, which markets a multimedia player called Net Toob, had encountered problems similar to those faced between Microsoft and RealNetworks.

    "It's been an ongoing problem...Microsoft products go in and run roughshod over the data types as they are installed," he added. Cooney noted that such overrunning causes confusion for his company's users and saps an excessive amount of technical support and programmer resources.

    "This has affected our income, having to fix things that we haven't caused," he said, as the company has to "basically work around after whatever happens when Microsoft products are installed."

    Glasser said one of the main points that needs to be considered is that this is not an issue simply between RealNetworks and Microsoft. "It is really a manner in which Microsoft's Media Player, as a general matter automatically and without user prompting, disables a range of products from a range of companies."

    Meanwhile, Microsoft maintained it was on the right side of the issue. "[Glaser's] demonstration has really been exposed as completely false and misleading, and I think RealNetworks has a lot of explaining to do," said Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray.

    A source close to RealNetworks said "users of the RealPlayer 3.0 and 4.0 get their MIME types silently stolen away...That disables the product. So basically it's not something we need to fix. It is something Microsoft needs to fix." (MIME, or multipurpose Internet mail extensions, allows browsers to handle Internet data that isn't text, such as video and audio files.)

    Last night, Microsoft posted a statement on its Web site saying: "After a day of testing [RealNetworks'] demonstration case and working hard to understand where the issues reside, Microsoft has found that the problem demonstrated by Glaser is caused by a bug in the beta version of RealNetworks' new G2 software."

    It went on to say: "The software bug appears only if the computer user is running Netscape Navigator."

    Microsoft offered technical information it said would prove that RealNetworks is responsible for the problem.

    The software giant's claim comes in response to testimony made before the Senate Judiciary Committee in which RealNetworks' Glaser said Microsoft's Windows Media Player "breaks" competing software. The two companies have programs that allow a computer to receive streaming audio and video via the Web.

    As part of his testimony, Glaser demonstrated how his software malfunctions after Media Player is installed. He suggested that Microsoft deliberately used Windows Media Player to disable his software and squash competition.

    "It's unfortunate that a forum as important and high-profile as this was used to advance RealNetworks' interests," said Microsoft spokesman Adam Sohn. "Given how much weight [Glaser] put in this demo and the amount of attention it drew, we think this is important."

    Glaser testified that Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates was uninterested in addressing the problem. In fact, he said that Gates had sent him an email with sightseeing tips.

    "I suggest visiting the National Gallery and Smithsonian" while in Washington, Gates wrote, according to Glaser's testimony.

    The hearing, dubbed "Competition in the Digital Age: Beyond the Browser Wars," was designed to scrutinize Microsoft's business practices. Senate Judiciary Committee chair Orrin Hatch has said repeatedly that Microsoft is a monopolist and uses its dominance to unfairly compete.

    In addition to Glaser, the committee also heard from Larry Ellison, Mitchell Kertzman, and Jeff Papows, the respective CEOs of Oracle, Sybase, and Lotus Development. The committee also heard from Mike Jeffress, a vice president from TV Host, a start-up that makes an electronic television guide.

    NEWS.COM's Jeff Pelline contributed to this report.