Microsoft pushes ahead on worldwide Vista launch

Benjamin J. Romano
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE - Microsoft said Friday that it intends to launch Windows Vista on schedule around the world, after a months-long discussion with regulators in Europe and several changes to the forthcoming operating system.

"We're gratified that we were able to have this type of constructive dialogue with the European Commission. The commission gave us clear guidance," Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said during a conference call with reporters this morning. "It's a lot easier to make sure you're obeying the speed limit when you know what the speed limit is."

The news pushed Microsoft's stock higher. It closed up 6 cents at $28.34.

Microsoft agreed to make changes to three areas of the product: security, search and a new file format, Smith said.

The security issues have made headlines recently as companies such as Symantec and McAfee have complained loudly about elements of Vista.

Microsoft is providing access to the kernel, or central part, of its code for 64-bit versions of Windows Vista, Smith said. A feature called Patch Guard ensured that the kernel remained unchanged and inaccessible. Previously, vendors had used access to the kernel for features of their own products.

Instead of removing the Patch Guard, Microsoft built kernel-level application programming interfaces (APIs) so that security software vendors could still get access to the areas of Vista they need, Smith said.

Microsoft also changed its Windows Security Center, a feature that sends alerts to users when their firewall has been turned off or their anti-virus software needs updating, for example. Now, when a competitor's security product is installed, Windows Security Center will not duplicate alerts that the competitive product may be sending.

"The goal from an engineering perspective was to both ensure competition law obligations are met, and users would be well informed if they had a problem like this with their PC," Smith said.

In search, Microsoft changed the upgrade process to Vista and its Internet Explorer 7 browser to ensure that all search engines, such as Google, Yahoo! and its own Live Search, are on a level playing field. Apparently, even if a specific search engine was set as the default in an earlier version of a user's operating system or browser, that search engine will not automatically be the default after upgrading.

Microsoft also agreed to submit its new file format - XML Paper Specification, or XPS, a competitor to Adobe's PDF – to a standards organization. Smith said it will also loosen the licensing terms on which the XPS format is made available to other software providers for use in their own products.

These changes come after talks with the European Commission (EC) beginning in early spring.

European Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes provided Microsoft with initial guidance about her concerns with Vista in March, centering on five areas. Microsoft took steps to address those and responded in April, Smith said.

In July, the EC sought answers to 79 questions, which Microsoft gave in August.

By September, the EC narrowed its concerns to three areas of the product, which Microsoft agreed to change worldwide.

Having made the changes, Microsoft felt confident it was in compliance with competition laws. CEO Steve Ballmer met with Kroes on Thursday to inform her that the company intends to move forward with Vista.

"We are excited to bring the security enhancements and innovative new features of Windows Vista to our customers and partners around the world, and we are committed to adhering to local law in every region of the world," Ballmer said in a statement.

"The Commission has not given a `green light' to Microsoft to deliver Vista because, as the Commission has consistently stated, Microsoft must shoulder its own responsibilities to ensure that Vista is fully compliant with EC Treaty competition rules and in particular with the principles laid down in the March 2004 Commission anti-trust decision concerning Microsoft," the EC said in a statement issued shortly after Microsoft's announcement.

"In line with the Commission's obligations under the EC Treaty and its practice, the Commission will closely monitor the effects of Vista in the market and, in particular, examine any complaints concerning Vista on their own merits," the EC said.

Smith acknowledged that the EC "does not give green lights to new products in advance" and that it is Microsoft's obligation to ensure that Vista is in compliance.

Vista is scheduled for a November release to large business customers and a broader release in January.

The negotiations over Vista took place as Microsoft and the EC grappled in an ongoing antitrust battle about features of Windows XP, Vista's predecessor.

"It's always very challenging to be in litigation and working together constructively at the same time," Smith said.

He noted that the changes made at the EC's behest are one part of the global regulatory thicket Microsoft has navigated in building Vista.

"Windows Vista is probably one of the most heavily scrutinized products in the history of technology," he said, adding that Microsoft has worked with more than 20 government agencies on three continents. "It is certainly the most heavily scrutinized product in the history of information technology."

Smith said that Microsoft has also been in discussions with the Korean Fair Trade Commission and plans to release a unique version of Vista to comply with its rules, on the same schedule.





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