No new news: Microsoft icons rule the desktop

When it comes to desktop warfare, the rules haven't changed. That was the message Microsoft sent Thursday when a spokesman for the company clarified confusion surrounding which icons can appear on the desktop of its forthcoming Windows XP software.

While the software juggernaut has been catching flak this week over news that three of the company's icons must appear on Windows XP desktops if any are to be present, Microsoft spokesman Jim Cullinan said Thursday that the rules governing desktop icons are nothing new.

If OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) opt not to ship their Windows XP-loaded computers with a "clean" desktop, which Microsoft strongly endorses, they have to hark back to old OEM rules that allow the software maker to display three desktop icons, Cullinan said.

The three icons Microsoft has chosen to slap on Windows XP are its Internet Explorer (IE) browser, MSN Internet service, and Windows Media Player. However, if the OEM has removed end-user access for IE, Movie Maker will be put in its place, Cullinan said. The Recycle Bin icon is not considered an application and therefore automatically appears on the desktop, even under the "clean" desktop configuration, Cullinan said.

Originally, Microsoft had planned to ship Windows XP with a clean desktop but after facing criticism that the company holds too much control over the desktop, it gave OEMs the option last month of removing certain features from the Start menu and adding icons to the desktop.

At that time, Microsoft admitted that the move was in response to an appeals court ruling in the U.S. government's antitrust case against the software maker.

These new OEM rules allow for PC makers, among other things, to seal deals with ISPs (Internet service providers) and to stick their icons on Windows XP desktops. Such is the case with America Online Inc., which signed such an agreement with Compaq Computer Corp. last month.

Compaq was originally going to ship its PCs with a clean Windows XP desktop, but when the OEMs were given greater leeway, the company decided to add the AOL and CompuServe Interactive Services Inc. icons, said David Albritton, a Compaq spokesman. Given this, he said, Microsoft would be adding its own icons.

If the PC maker decides to go with the clean desktop, however, the OEM gets to choose five icons under the start button, and Microsoft will still retain three, Cullinan said.

While the new OEM rules were intended to show that the software maker was loosening its grip on its operating systems, published reports this week that said the company will still be able to prominently place its icons on the desktop or Start button drew ire from some rivals.

"There they go again, " AOL Time Warner Inc. Corporate Vice President John Buckley said Thursday. "Their so-called flexibility announced July 11 was, of course, a stunt."

Microsoft's icon requirements are indicative of the kind of anticompetitive practices the software maker has long been accused of, he said.

"Their message to consumers, to computer manufacturers and especially to law enforcement officials is 'we own the computer desktop and there's nothing you can do about it'," Buckley said.

Cullinan took issue with Buckley's comments, saying, "AOL has been wrong on so many things."

"Our partners understand the obligations under the licensing agreement," Cullinan said.

While the industry players spar, the world awaits Windows XP's Oct. 25 scheduled release. Chances are, there will be no surprises on the desktop.

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