May 23, 2002 9:00 PM PDT

XP makeover highlights antitrust tweaks

Microsoft is finalizing a major makeover for Windows XP that's intended to make it easier for consumers to choose third-party software over Microsoft's own products.


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Within the next few weeks, the software giant plans to begin testing Service Pack 1 for Windows XP, the first major update to the operating system, which was launched in October.

Some of the more significant changes, such as those allowing consumers and PC makers to override Microsoft's default products, are a direct response to the continuing antitrust case against the Redmond, Wash.-based company.

The service pack will ship this summer to PC makers and will be available as a free download from the company's Web site. As previously reported, the service pack will contain bug fixes, tweaks and compatibility updates, as have similar releases for previous versions of Windows.

Microsoft executives this week said that other new changes in Service Pack 1 will comply with a November settlement that Microsoft agreed upon with the Justice Department and nine states. Nine other states and the District of Columbia are continuing with the antitrust litigation. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who is overseeing the remedy portion of the trial, has not yet approved the settlement.

Among the changes is a new control that will allow PC makers or consumers to replace Microsoft software with third-party applications from Microsoft's competitors, such as AOL Time Warner and RealNetworks.

Under the Justice Department settlement, Microsoft must allow consumers or PC makers to hide user access to five pieces of so-called middleware: Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Windows Media Player, Windows Messenger and Microsoft's version of the Java Virtual Machine.

Once the service pack is installed, a new icon will be visible on Windows XP's Program Menu, under "Windows Update" for setting program access and defaults. On new PCs, the icon will also be displayed on the Start Menu. The "Set Programs Access and Defaults" control also will appear as the fourth option under the Windows Control Panel.

Four options for altering Windows
The control offers four different choices for changing the Windows desktop and Start Menu: "Computer Manufacturer Configuration," "Microsoft Windows," "Non-Microsoft" and "Custom."

The first of the four options is designed to restore the middleware configuration back to the default setting chosen by the PC maker. It will have little impact on existing Windows XP users when upgrading. PC makers have the choice of installing Microsoft or third-party middleware, and they also have the option of hiding access to Microsoft middleware.

Do-it-yourself Windows redesign

Service Pack 1 for Windows XP will let consumers and PC makers override five of Microsoft's default middleware products: Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Windows Media Player, Windows Messenger and Microsoft's version of the Java Virtual Machine.

A new icon will appear in the Program Menu, under "Windows Update," for setting program access and defaults. (On new PCs, the icon will also be displayed on the Start Menu.) The "Set Programs Access and Defaults" control also will appear in the Windows Control Panel.

The control offers four options for changing the Windows desktop and Start Menu:

• Computer Manufacturer Configuration--PC makers have the choice of installing Microsoft or third-party middleware, or hiding access to Microsoft middleware. Designed to restore the middleware configuration to the default setting chosen by the PC maker.

• Microsoft Windows--Allows access to all of Microsoft's middleware and makes each piece of software the default option; none is hidden.

• Non-Microsoft--Allows users to choose middleware from competitors as their default choices. When no third-party middleware is installed, Microsoft software would appear in the list.

• Custom--Lists all middleware installed in the five different categories. Users can check a default or they can hide or show every single one.

Several PC makers have already indicated that they would consider swapping out Microsoft middleware, such as Windows Media Player or Windows Messenger, for competing software. But many are still evaluating their options.

The "Microsoft Windows" setting allows access to all of the software giant's middleware and makes each piece of software the default option; none is hidden.

"But if the (PC maker) or the user has put anything else on the PC, that can register in the user interface," said Jim Cullinan, lead project manager for Windows XP. "We are not choosing to hide any other programs. If you have Netscape and Opera (browsers) on there, they will have icons on the desktop or the Start Menu--wherever they already are--but it will just make IE the default."

The "Non-Microsoft" software option allows users to choose middleware from competitors as their default choices.

"If you have five different browsers on the PC and four of them are non-Microsoft, those four will appear there and you will have a choice to pick the default," Cullinan said. But for the choices to appear, software developers must write programs "so that they can register here," he said. When no third-party middleware installed, Microsoft software would appear in the list.

The final option, "Custom," lists all the middleware installed in the five different categories. "You can check a default and hide or show every single one," Cullinan said. "This is basically where the consumer can go and configure their PC any way they want."

During the beta process, Microsoft plans to work with software developers to make sure their products can take advantage of the user interface changes, Cullinan said.

"We're telling software developers how to register for this (user interface)," Cullinan said. "Second, we're showing them how to be the default in every occasion. Third we're telling them how to adhere to the user's choice to hide their technology. We expect those companies to do one and two, but they're not required to do No. 3."

Some state trustbusters and Microsoft's chief rivals have complained that the changes being made to Windows XP do not go far enough to ensure a level playing field in the computer software market. Critics say Microsoft is hiding access to its programs, but the fundamental code is still installed on the PC. If the code is still there, developers could take advantage of it over other middleware, they charge. In the case of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, a U.S. Court of Appeals determined that Microsoft "commingled" code in this way for anticompetitive purposes.

Widespread test release
In an unusual move, Microsoft plans a widespread test release of the service pack. The company anticipates that more than 10,000 people will have access to this test release. Typically, only a few thousand people would test a service pack before its release.

"This certainly isn't what I would call the typical service pack," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver. "Microsoft is trying to pack a lot of things in there. Certainly the (Justice Department) settlement is a big part of it."


Gartner analyst Michael Silver says SP1 is pretty straightforward. The final release will probably occur in September or October.

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While the changes designed to comply with the Justice Department settlement are the most visible, Microsoft plans to include other new features for the service pack.

As part of its Trustworthy Computing initiative and a nearly two-month security analysis of Windows XP and Windows 2000 code, the software giant will include a number of security fixes in the service pack.

Microsoft also will do away with the pop-up box that urges users to sign up for .Net Passport, the company's online authentication service. During recent testimony in Microsoft's antitrust trial, critics charged that the company used the persistent reminders to sign up as a way to quickly build membership for Passport and to give it a competitive advantage over other similar authentication programs.

Microsoft also plans to offer as an option support for its forthcoming .Net Web services initiative.

"We are going to include .Net Framework as an optional component, so that a (PC maker) has the option to include it on their PCs," Cullinan said.

Microsoft released .Net Framework for download earlier this spring using XP's Windows Update feature. The software giant is adding it to the service pack "because we've heard from customers and developers who are now building applications for the .Net Framework as part of Visual Studio.Net," Cullinan said. "They wanted it sooner than later."

Biting the hand that pirates it
Another change seeks to curb about 90 percent of Windows XP piracy. Microsoft introduced Product Activation with the operating system, which uses a numeric key to lock the software to the hardware. But code stolen from a large Microsoft customer allowed rampant illegal Windows XP copying. People using Windows XP with the stolen key will not be able to apply the service pack or any future updates available from Microsoft's Web site.

"Basically we're freezing their computer where it is," Cullinan said. "We're not preventing them from using it, but obviously one of the benefits of having a license is keeping your PC updated."

As previously reported, Service Pack 1 also will include support for Mira wireless devices. PC makers also will get updates supporting Tablet PC software and Freestyle, a new XP interface for accessing the operating systems' digital media features using a remote control. These will not be available to consumers.

The update will broaden Windows hardware support in other areas. Microsoft released drivers supporting USB 2.0 for download in February. USB 2.0 support will be part of the update. Microsoft also plans on fixes based on the Windows XP error reporting tool, which allows users to submit a bug report following a crash. That has led to over 40 fixes for software and hardware. One update will fix a problem between an Nvidia graphics card driver and the Windows XP operating system that led to fatal crashes.

Microsoft also plans to introduce an update to Windows Messenger with the release of Service Pack 1. "In order for Windows Messenger to be hidden and removed, we had to make changes, and that's manifested in (version) 4.7," Cullinan said. "Also there have been some security issues (in Windows Messenger), and those will be addressed also."

In a related move, Microsoft is also simultaneously putting the finishing touches on Windows 2000 Service Pack 3, which is in final beta testing before release. That service pack is expected to be released ahead of the service pack for Windows XP, Cullinan said.

 

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