Microsoft loosens grip on software before court ruling

Microsoft said Monday that it is moving ahead to adopt some remedies of its proposed antitrust settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and nine states, such as allowing the unbundling of its "middleware" products and revealing some key intellectual property to competitors, enabling them to create products that are interoperable with Microsoft software.

Microsoft said that it is on track to release Service Pack 1 for Windows XP by the end of September, allowing end users and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to select default programs that are displayed on the Start Menu and in other locations. Using the Service Pack, users will be able to remove five of the company's key "middleware" products: the Internet Explorer (IE ) browser, Media Player, Outlook Express, Microsoft Messenger and Microsoft Java Virtual Machine.

Additionally, the company said that it is unveiling nearly 300 new APIs (application programming interfaces) related to these five components, and posting them on the Microsoft Developer Network on Aug. 28. The APIs will be provided for free, allowing developers to create software that is interoperable with Windows.

The software maker also announced that it will begin a licensing program Tuesday for its internal communication protocols, allowing third parties to create server software that is interoperable with or can communicate with Windows 2000 Professional, Windows XP and future operating systems. The licensing program is divided into 12 tasks, such as licensing for file serving, print serving and streaming media, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said during a conference call Monday. The company said that the program will be royalty-based and the pricing will only be available to third parties entering into nondisclosure agreements.

Microsoft's announcement comes as U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly considers a remedy ruling in the DOJ's five-year antitrust case against the software maker. The government and nine of the 18 states that pursued the antitrust case against Microsoft reached a settlement last year, although the nine remaining states refused to go along, saying the settlement did not do enough to rein in the software maker.

Kollar-Kotelly is expected to announce at any time whether she accepts the settlement terms or wants to impose harsher remedies.

Microsoft's pre-emptive moves appear to be an attempt to ease anticompetitive concerns about the software maker and fend off more stringent remedies.

Microsoft has already made an effort to shake off its anticompetitive moniker by loosening its licensing terms with OEMs. Under pressure from the federal court case, the software maker made concessions last year such as allowing OEMs to remove access to the company's Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser and giving them choices on how to configure the Windows XP desktop. Showing further compliance with the settlement terms, the company released Service Pack 3 for Windows 2000 last week, which allows users to choose what middleware programs, such as the Web browser and media player, they want to use. Microsoft has set up a Web page at http://www.microsoft.com/legal/settlementprogram/ to explain the remedies it is putting into place before the Kollar-Kotelly's settlement ruling is released.

(More to come.)

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