What You Need to Know About Instant Search Changes to Windows Vista SP1

Executive Summary:
Microsoft has agreed to change the Instant Search feature in Windows Vista SP1 to quell complaints from Internet search giant Google. Google believes that desktop search functionality in Windows should be treated like other middleware as defined by Microsoft's consent decree—that is, applications such as media players, email clients, Web browsers, and IM solutions. Microsoft will modify the Vista Start menu so that users who install Google Desktop Search or other solutions can access those solutions via the Search entry in the Start menu.

The conventional wisdom is that Microsoft's historic antitrust battle with the US government and several states ended with a decided victory for the software giant: The 2002 settlement seemed biased in Microsoft's favor, and the consent decree seemed to require little of significance from the company. However, it's now clear that Microsoft is a changed company as a result of this battle, and its kinder and gentler persona in recent years suggests that the settlement has had the desired effect.

Windows Vista is an obvious and recent example: In the months leading up to the completion of the OS in 2006, Microsoft made numerous concessions to competitors without being required to by the courts. What's amazing about this trend is that Microsoft is still making Vista concessions today. Most recently, it has agreed to change the Instant Search feature in the SP1 update to the OS to quell complaints from Internet search giant Google. Here's what you need to know about the changes Microsoft is making to the Instant Search feature in Vista SP1.

Google's Complaint
Google announced the first beta release of its own desktop search product, Google Desktop Search (GDS) in October 2004, about a year after the 2003 Professional Developer Conference, at which Microsoft revealed its intention to include Instant Search in Vista. Google Desktop Search was designed to extend Google's popularity on the Internet to the PC desktop and provide a Google Internet Search–like experience with local files. (More recently, Google has shipped GDS versions for both Mac OS X and Linux as well.) Meanwhile, a number of other companies also shipped similar desktop search products, Apple's Spotlight feature in Mac OS X 10.4 being, perhaps, among the most well known. Even Microsoft got into the game: With Vista delayed again and again, the company shipped a free instant search add-on for Windows XP called Windows Desktop Search.

About a month after Microsoft finalized Vista in November 2006, Google complained to the Department of Justice (DOJ) about the Instant Search feature. What's interesting about this complaint is that the DOJ attempted to keep it quiet, and—most alarmingly—tried to coerce the US states against Microsoft in the antitrust case to ignore the complaint. Eventually, the states rebelled against this request because they feared that the complaint had merit and that Microsoft was once again up to its old tricks. The Google complaint became public in mid-2006.

Why would the DOJ try to smother Google's complaint? Remember that the DOJ of today is very different from the Clinton administration department that sued Microsoft in the 1990s. Today, the DOJ is pro-business, and Microsoft is seen as one of America's shining success stories, especially given the philanthropic activities of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The states felt that the Google complaint had merit, and some state attorneys general were ready to move against Microsoft on their own if the DOJ didn't get on board. Facing a mutiny, the DOJ reversed course and pledged to work with the states to convince Microsoft to address Google's concerns.

Google's complaint is straightforward. The company believes that desktop search functionality in Windows should be treated like other middleware as defined by Microsoft's consent decree—that is, applications such as media players, email clients, Web browsers, and IM solutions. Google argued that consumers and PC makers should be allowed to completely swap out Microsoft's built-in applications for third-party solutions. According to Google, the change would create a more competitive environment that would benefit users, PC makers, and third-party developers alike.

Google also said that Vista's Instant Search feature had been designed so that third-party solutions, such as Google Desktop Search, no longer worked as well as they did in XP. The Instant Search indexer can't be turned off, for example, and users who install Google Desktop Search will see system performance decline because two indexers are running simultaneously. Although it was possible to integrate Google Desktop Search into various UI points in XP—such as the Start Menu and Windows Explorer windows—it's not possible to do so in Vista. Microsoft, Google said, engineered Vista specifically to harm competitors.

Microsoft's Reply
Microsoft's initial reply to these charges was predictable: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called the complaint "baseless." But the company began working immediately with representatives from the DOJ and several states to hammer out a compromise. A few days after the Google complaint was first aired publicly, Microsoft announced that it would change the Instant Search behavior in Vista, starting with the release of Vista SP1, which it said would ship in beta form by the end of 2007.

Desktop search will indeed be treated like other middleware in Windows, per Google's request, allowing users and PC makers to choose third-party solutions. In such cases, the Instant Search indexer will still run, but at a lower priority; a higher priority will be given to whatever third-party indexer is installed.

Microsoft will also modify the Vista Start menu so that users who install Google Desktop Search or other solutions can access those solutions via the Search entry in the Start menu. In addition, Microsoft will modify Windows Explorer so that third-party desktop search providers can install a link to their products in these windows. However, the Instant Search box in Vista's Windows Explorer windows will remain, even when third-party solutions are installed.

The DOJ and the states immediately accepted Microsoft's proposal and, together, presented them to Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly at a regularly scheduled June 2007 status meeting about the Microsoft antitrust case. Google, irked that it did not get to review Microsoft's changes before they were approved, repeatedly petitioned the court for permission to comment. But Kollar-Kotelly noted that it was the DOJ and states, not Google, that represented the public's interest in the case. Any complaints would need to go through those entities, not the court.

Google is unlikely to ever approve of Microsoft's changes, since they only partially address Google's original complaint. For example, Microsoft isn't providing a way to completely replace Instant Search, nor is Microsoft giving third-party developers access to the search boxes that already exist in Vista's Windows Explorer windows. This is a battle that will quite likely extend well beyond the release of SP1.

To date, Microsoft has been unusually reticent about discussing the features in Vista's first service pack, but some alarming trends are emerging that might threaten the long-held belief that enterprises should upgrade to a new Windows version only after the first service pack ships. Here's what we know: Vista SP1 will include a new kernel version aimed at bringing Vista up-to-date with the kernel Microsoft will ship in Windows 2008. The new kernel will also include major security changes brought about by late-2006 complaints from security vendors such as Symantec and McAfee. SP1 will include the Instant Search changes outlined here, as well as a host of other changes, most of which are still in various stages of rumor status. And that's the rub: Thanks to its newfound policy of secrecy, Microsoft has made something that should be transparent quite the opposite. For this reason, I recommend that enterprises that had expected to begin deploying Vista at SP1 hold off until a future date: Too much is unknown about SP1 at this time, and too much is in flux, for anyone to make reliable deployment plans.

I'm also calling on Microsoft to end the silliness and explain both its release schedule going forward and the exact features we can expect in each Vista service pack and in subsequent versions of Windows. Holding back this critical information is not in Microsoft's best interests, and it's certainly not in its customers' best interests. It's time to do the right thing, Microsoft. This is information your customers need to know.

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