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U.S., Massachusetts Want Microsoft To Revise Tech Documents

The technical documentation "needs substantial revision" to address complaints by some licensees and competitors that the documentation is inadequate, said U.S. officials.
Microsoft is experiencing increased pressure from the U.S. government and the state of Massachusetts to open up more technical documentation following harsh sanctions issued against the software giant by the European Commission last month.

In a joint status report filed by the two parties at the U.S. District Court in Washington on Wednesday, the U.S. said the technical documentation Microsoft has released as part of its antitrust settlement with the government "needs substantial revision" to address complaints by some licensees and competitors that the documentation is inadequate.

Competitors need the documentation to ensure their products run on and interoperate with Windows-based systems.

The U.S. government will also review a recently proposed change to Microsoft's uniform OEM licensing program that would enable manufacturers to have patent protection on future licenses, but not for past and current licenses. The move would give OEMs the right to sue Microsoft for violations, but the terms fall short of what system manufacturers want.

The European Commission's sanctions handed down last month impose a $613 million fine against the software giant and requires it to ship a stripped-down version of Windows without the Media Player. The commission is also requiring Microsoft to make more technical interfaces and protocols available to competitors.

While the European Commission has not fully defined the "parameters" of the relief it will seek against Microsoft, the Department of Justice and the 17 states that signed on to the 2001 settlement deal "will monitor the impact of the European Commission's order in the context of their ongoing efforts," the report said.

Massachusetts, the sole state agency that continues to fight for harsher penalties against Microsoft, also weighed in on the matter on Wednesday, issuing a scathing report to the court criticizing the U.S. remedies and recent licensing changes as unproductive.

"To date, we have seen no viable evidence that the decree has fostered any competitive benefits in the marketplace," read the state filing, submitted by Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly. "This is perhaps most disturbing in the Communications Protocol arena, because this aspect of the remedy was supposed to unfetter competition by nurturing development [in crucial software markets.]"

Microsoft spokeswoman Stacy Drake McCredy said the company is working closely with the Department of Justice to explore and evaluate different ways to ensure greater usability of technical documentation.

"We're looking at a number of things to increase usability," she said, noting that the company is looking at improving the documentation, not opening up new protocols. "Right now, it's too early to say [what those possibilities are]."

She noted that Microsoft recently expanded the scope of use of the Microsoft Communications Protocol Program (MCPP) to enable the use of protocols for server-to-server communications. Until that point, the MCPP only addressed the interoperability of rival server operating systems with the Windows desktop client, McCredy noted.

Still, Massachusetts' attorney general was unimpressed. "Based on complaints we've received recently regarding the changes, it does not appear that they will have significantly enhanced the utility of Microsoft's limited disclosure regime," Reilly wrote.

To date, 14 companies have signed licenses as part of MCPP, including VeriSign, EMC, Cisco Systems, Egenera, Laplink.com, Network Appliance, The SCO Group, BitBand, StarBak Communications, Tandberg Television and UTStarcom.

However, one ISV in the open-source community said the current licensing program doesn't do much for most ISVs and solution providers in the SMB space.

"The MCPP does not go far enough for the majority of organizations as it does nothing to loosen the lock-ins people struggle with in a proprietary model. Only those most dependent on Microsoft would find this of value," said Jim Curtin, president and CEO of NeTraverse, of Austin, Texas, whose Win4Lin software enables Windows applications to run on Linux. "It is like the difference between IPX and TCP. The broader market craves open standards and will seek these as a natural, inexorable priority. The program does not seem to be designed for ISVs and smaller companies in that there is a $50,000 pre-pay and another $100,000 fee to expedite your application, among other things. Try getting that expense through in this environment ... For a rare few companies this is probably a great deal, but not for the mainstream IT community."

Since August 2002, Microsoft has released more than 5,000 pages of technical documentation for Windows-related protocols to comply with its antitrust settlement agreement with the United States.

In spite of government criticism, Microsoft points to significant progress on the interoperability front, including the recent addition of Sun Microsystems, GeoTrust and Time Warner to the MCPP list.

The company's 10-year, historic pact with Sun, announced on April 1, ends litigation between the two companies and is expected to enable better interoperability between Unix and Windows systems as well as Java and .Net technologies.

In addition, a settlement with InterTrust Technologies and its key investors Sony and Phillips earlier this week is expected to pave the way to better interoperability and adoption of digital rights management technology for media and business documents, solution providers expect.

Microsoft has made other public attempts to show that it is opening up, although most of those efforts have received little attention. In December, the company announced an expanded IP Licensing Program that opens up technologies such as ClearType and the File Allocation table technology for licensing.

On Thursday, Microsoft announced a minor addition to its Open and Royalty-Free Office 2003 XML reference schema program announced last November, namely the addition of the XML schema used by Microsoft Visio 2003, DataDiagramML.

Still, the Massachusetts attorney general said he is more concerned with leveling the playing field for future battle. "We also continue to review issues regarding Internet search engines, document format programs and other functionalities that Microsoft allegedly plans to incorporate into the next version of its Windows operating system," Reilly said. "While our current review has not shown Microsoft's actions to be within the reach of this decree, we will continue to investigate as the new version of Windows is finalized."