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Windows 7 eyed by antitrust regulators

New OS must toe the line, says analyst, which puts Microsoft on the hot seat

March 13, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Technical advisers to the antitrust regulators who monitor Microsoft Corp.'s business practices in the U.S. will probe Windows 7, the follow-up to Vista, to ensure it abides by the rules set for the company.

Though few details are known about Windows 7, and those that are available rely on shaky evidence, the three-person panel of computer experts that works for state antitrust officials has a copy of the operating system, according to the status report filed late last month with U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly.

"In addition, the TC [technical committee] has begun to review Windows 7 itself. Microsoft recently supplied the TC with a build of Windows 7 and is discussing TC testing going forward," the report said. "The TC will conduct middleware-related tests on future builds of Windows 7."

Microsoft has been under the eye of regulators since it struck a deal in 2002 that required the company to document communication protocols. The decree also set up the technical committee and forced Microsoft and state and federal antitrust officials to deliver regular reports to Kollar-Kotelly.

Although the decree was originally set to expire in early November 2007, several states objected, and after months of legal back-and-forth between the states and Microsoft, in January Kollar-Kotelly extended the decree's rules and enforcement policies by another two years to November 2009.

"The provisions of the final judgments have not yet had the chance to operate together as the comprehensive remedy the court and the parties envisioned when the final judgments were entered," she said then.

Parts of the 2002 decree requires that for any new feature added to Windows that meets the definition of "Microsoft middleware product," the company must help rivals integrate their similar software with Windows. Last year, Google Inc. argued that Windows Vista's desktop search was a new feature -- not an extension of the search in Windows XP -- thus making it middleware, so Microsoft should be forced to open Vista to other search providers. Microsoft conceded the point before Kollar-Kotelly could rule; Vista SP1, which rolls out to the general user population this month, sports changes that allow users to select non-Microsoft search engines to power Vista's desktop search.

That example is important because it points to the scrutiny Windows 7 will be subjected to. "Microsoft has learned that this oversight is not going away very quickly, and that they have to deal with it proactively," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at JupiterResearch. "Their challenge for Windows 7 will be how can they continue to add features that consumers will want that also don't run afoul of regulators?"

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