MS Antitrust: Gov’t, Microsoft haggle over documentation

Microsoft Corp. is behind schedule in complying with a court order to document its proprietary communications protocols, according to U.S. authorities monitoring its behavior. It also plans to release the documents in a file format that cannot be annotated, and can only be used with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, they said in a report published Friday.

Microsoft will review the documentation format and suggest alternatives within 60 days, it said Friday in a report authored with the U.S. Department of Justice, 16 states and the District of Columbia, the plaintiffs in the U.S. government’s antitrust case against the company.

The joint status report is one of a series requested regularly by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to monitor Microsoft’s compliance with the final judgment in the antitrust case. The judgment requires Microsoft to document and license its software communications protocols, and to revise the terms under which it licenses its Windows operating system to PC makers, among other things.

In July, Microsoft said it would complete revisions of the documentation required by the court in the autumn, a season generally reckoned to include the months of September, October and November in North America, but may now have to extend work on a beta or test version of the new documentation into December, it said in the report Friday. The plaintiffs have three main areas of concern about the documentation.

First among these is that Microsoft, asked to open up and document the interfaces to its communication protocols for licensees, has chosen to issue the documentation in a rights-protected file format called MHT, readable only with its own Web browser, Internet Explorer. This means licensees can neither annotate nor effectively search the information, according to the plaintiffs.

Microsoft defended its choice, saying it had put “very substantial effort” into converting all the documentation into MHT format because it can handle large documents and can secure the documentation. Microsoft said that it has published the specification for MHT and that it offers a free software development toolkit for the digital rights management system, enabling anyone to develop a new software application to decode and read the files using another browser.

The plaintiffs also questioned the completeness and accuracy of the documentation, saying that it was of the utmost importance that Microsoft address the issue over the next 60 days. Finally, the plaintiffs highlighted the complex and error-prone system for distributing the documentation over the Internet. Microsoft has agreed to send the documentation to licensees on CD or DVD, it said.

Microsoft has agreed to continue working on the documentation to meet the plaintiffs’ concerns, even after this round of improvements is complete, the plaintiffs said in the report.

The Redmond, Washington, company now has 19 licensees for its communications protocols, it said in the status report. Two have signed up since the last report was published in July: Realm Systems Inc. and Blue Coat Systems Inc.

The plaintiffs also raised continuing concerns about other Microsoft licenses.

When Microsoft licenses PC makers (OEMs, or original equipment manufacturers in Microsoft terminology) to install Windows on machines they manufacture, it often grants them a discount in order to provide them with funds to help with their marketing. Under its Market Development Agreement (MDA), Microsoft requires that the advertising take a certain form in order to qualify for the agreement, including that advertisements include a tagline such as “(OEM) recommends Windows XP Professional.” At the request of the plaintiffs, Microsoft has agreed to clarify in the MDA that advertisements for PCs sold without Windows need not include this tagline, and that PCs sold with more than one operating system, including a non-Microsoft operating system, may also include language recommending other operating systems. Microsoft did not comment on this provision.

Contracts for Microsoft’s .Net Framework require that licensees ask Microsoft for permission before publishing benchmark testing results for the framework. Since this information could be key to effectively comparing Microsoft products with those of its competition, and the license provision could be used to prevent such comparison, the plaintiffs asked Microsoft to change it. Microsoft agreed to modify it to require only prior notice from licensees of their intent to publish, so that it can attempt to reproduce the results itself. “Microsoft does not object to benchmarking of non-Microsoft software against the .Net Framework,” it said in the report.

The plaintiffs also made moves to incorporate the state of Massachusetts into their information-sharing and monitoring group. Massachusetts did not settle its case against Microsoft at the same time as the others, and has only recently decided to participate in the plaintiffs’ joint enforcement activities.

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