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Windows XP Middleware reviewed

On November 2, 2001, Microsoft and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) issued their Proposed Final Judgment (PFJ), an agreement that sought to end the company's years-long antitrust battle with the federal government. And though nine US states also signed on to the PFJ, nine other states and the District of Columbia did not, so as of this writing--mid-April 2002--it's unclear how Microsoft's historic antitrust case will end up.

Microsoft's antitrust problems boil down to one key issue: The company has illegally maintained and extended its desktop operating system monopoly by tying, or commingling, products with Windows in order to shut out competition. These commingled products--Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, Windows Messenger, and many others, are referred to as middleware, a term that historically referred to low-level services, not applications, or software that exposed their own APIs (application programming interfaces). But then, Microsoft's sometimes artificial product tying practices are rather unique in the industry as well: Most OS vendors bundle a certain set of applications, but none have intertwined the code of these applications with the OS code so as to make them difficult to separate. This practice was found to be anticompetitive, a fact that was upheld on appeal: "Microsoft failed to meet the burden of showing that its conduct serves a purpose other than protecting its operating system monopoly," the unanimous US Court of Appeals ruling against the company reads. "Accordingly, we hold that Microsoft's ... commingling of browser and operating system code constitutes exclusionary conduct, in violation of [US antitrust law]."

In any event, both the PFJ, which is supported by Microsoft, the DOJ and nine US states, and a set of proposed remedies sought by the nine non-settling states and the District of Columbia directly address the middleware issue. So however the Microsoft case concludes, our Windows middleware choices will be affected.

The DOJ/Microsoft settlement specifically says that middleware includes "browsers, email clients, media players, instant-messaging software, and future new middleware developments." If the PFJ is accepted as law, Microsoft will disclose all middleware and server interfaces and protocols, and PC makers will be free to install the middleware they want, even if it excludes similar Microsoft-bundled middleware. The company is currently planning a Service Pack 1 (SP1) release of Windows XP that will let PC makers, end users, and IT administrators hide various XP middleware products, including Internet Explorer, Microsoft?s Java Virtual Machine (JVM), Windows Media Player, Windows Messenger, Outlook Express, and various other products, so that PC makers could install third-party replacements in their place.

The nine non-settling states weren't impressed with this agreement, so they drafted their own set of remedy proposals. Included was a plan that would require Microsoft to make Windows more modular so that PC makers, end users, and IT administrators could add and remove middleware components as required. Under this plan, middleware such as Windows Media Player and Windows Messenger could actually be removed from the system, and not just hidden. This would give users more choice, and PC makers a better opportunity to create relationships with third-party middleware providers such as RealNetworks, Netscape, and others.

Regardless of which plan is approved by the courts, Windows XP users today already have a lot of choice. Most of Microsoft's so-called middleware products--IE, Windows Messenger, Windows Media Player--are first-rate applications that serve the needs and wants of millions of users. But there's plenty of competition out there and, in recent months, some of it has gotten quite good. In this series of reviews, I'll be looking at the three major middleware components in Windows XP and evaluating how the competition stacks up. Microsoft supporter or not, you may be surprised to see how the company's products fare in the real world.

Web browsers
The crucial decision to commingle the code of Windows and Internet Explorer started Microsoft's legal problems, so it's only logical that we take a look at the state of Web browsing in Windows XP. I'll be examining Internet Explorer's primary competitors, a freeware successor to Netscape Communicator called Mozilla, and a relatively new commercial alternative, Opera, that also ships in a free, ad-enabled version.

For more information
Internet Explorer

Media players
Windows Media Player was the first all-in-one digital media application, offering users a one-stop activity center for all of their digital audio and video needs. Since then, commercial competitors such as RealNetworks RealONE and MusicMatch Jukebox have been released with similar functionality, and Microsoft has released a new XP-specific version called Windows Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP). We'll look at each of these products.

For more information
Windows Media Player for Windows XP
RealNetworks RealONE
MusicMatch Jukebox

Instant Messaging (IM) and Real-time communications
Once derided as the plaything of college students and other people with way too much free time on their hands, instant messaging--or the wider, and more generic market for real-time communications--has exploded in recent years with corporate adoptions and new features such as audio and video chatting, application sharing, and file sharing. Microsoft improved its freeware MSN Messenger product and bundled it as Windows Messenger in Windows XP. But early IM pioneers haven't stood still, and I'll be looking at two popular alternatives, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and Yahoo! Instant Messenger, as well.

For more information
Windows Messenger
AOL Instant Messenger
Yahoo! Instant Messenger

On to the reviews...
In the coming days, I'll be posting the Web browser, Media player, and Instant Messaging reviews. Stay tuned!

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