Which comes first - Microsoft Corp.'s much anticipated Windows XP operating system, or it's new Media Player 8? To the chagrin of the software giant, and bemusement of its dissenters, it appears to be the Media Player, which has apparently run away from a beta version of Windows XP that it is supposed to be tied to, and is on the loose.
Well, sort of. According to Microsoft spokesman Jim Cullinan, someone extracted codes from a Windows XP beta version and is masquerading a thrown-together system as Media Player 8, although it doesn't have some of the core functions that the real Media Player has.
The proliferation of the counterfeit Media Player, which has sprung up on various Web sites, prompting Microsoft to threaten legal action against the software harborers, has spurred a greater question for Microsoft watchers, however. By tying Media Player 8 to Windows XP, which is due for commercial shipment in the second half of this year, will Microsoft be culpable of the same sort of bundling practices that got the software colossal into antitrust problems in the first place?
Mike Pettit, executive director for the Project to Promote Competition & Innovation in the Digital Age (ProComp), a group founded by Microsoft competitors, said yes.
"This would violate the agreement they entered into in 1995 because they are conditioning the sale of one product with another," Pettit said, referring to a Consent Decree Microsoft signed in 1995, effectively agreeing not to bundle products.
Accusations that Microsoft bundled it's Internet Explorer Web browser to the Windows operating system is what caused much of the brouhaha leading to the software giant's antitrust case filed by the U.S. Department of Justice and state attorneys general.
Although Microsoft denies parenthood of the rogue Media Player, some of the company's detractors point to it as evidence that the software giant has bundled the player with Windows XP, as sources who have downloaded and tested the player have noted that not all of its functions work without XP, such as its CD (compact disc) burning and DVD (digital versatile disk) playback functions.
Pettit indicated that if Media Player 8 is unable to stand alone from Windows XP, it could mean Microsoft is again trying to block out the competition.
"There's robust competition in media players and what they decided to do is 'bolt' users into (Media Player)," Pettit said.
Microsoft's Cullinan rebutted that the Media Player has been part of Windows since 1991 and that claims of bundling are an example of competitors trying to prevent the company from innovating and improving technologies.
Pettit argued in return: "What we've learned from the Microsoft trial is that there is no reason why products can't standing alone and work seamlessly. It's a facade to put things together and tell the world they don't work as well apart."
Forrester Research Inc. group director of research John McCarthy disagreed with Pettit, however.
"That's baloney," McCarthy said. "There isn't a company in the world that wouldn't try to stop people from ripping apart its beta version."
"Microsoft has enough power that there is the potential for antitrust, but people risk playing chicken little (with this accusation)," McCarthy said.
According to Cullinan, if a Windows XP users wants to use another media player, they would have no problem downloading a competing system.
"We work very hard with companies and ISPs (Internet service providers) to ensure that their applications work great on Windows. That doesn't mean we can't compete with them, but we understand we have to do both," said Cullinan.
While wrestling over the software leader's market influence is bound to continue even beyond the outcome of the Microsoft appeal of a judge's order to break up the company, there is in the meantime an orphaned Media Player wandering the Web. It will be interesting to see if anyone claims the little "bundle" of joy.