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UPDATED: Microsoft To Make Changes to Vista Search

Microsoft has agreed to make changes to its search capabilities in Windows Vista, in response to federal anti-competitive charges leveled by Google. The changes will be part of Vista's service pack 1, which Microsoft said it hopes to have ready in beta form by the "end of the year."

In a document filed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia late Tuesday, Microsoft promised to make changes "with the goal of promoting user and OEM choice for desktop search in Windows Vista," according to the report.

The initial complaint, filed by Google last December, alleged that Vista's desktop search capabilities violated the conditions of the consent decree that allows the U.S. Department of Justice to monitor Microsoft's products for potential monopolistic practices. Google claimed, essentially, that desktop search in Vista discourages competition because it's nearly impossible to use a third-party search tool, such as Google's, to search a local hard drive.

Google believes it's been vindicated by the report. David Drummond, Google's senior vice president and chief legal officer, wrote in an e-mail: "Microsoft's current approach to Vista desktop search clearly violates the consent decree and limits consumer choice. We are pleased that as a result of Google's request that the consent decree be enforced, the Department of Justice and state Attorneys General have required Microsoft to make changes to Vista. These remedies are a step in the right direction, but they should be improved further to give consumers greater access to alternate desktop search providers."

In the agreement, Microsoft agreed to alter Vista search in three primary ways:

• First, Microsoft will create a way for end users and OEMs to pick a default desktop search tool. The current default is Vista desktop search, but changes will make it easier to choose another search engine, leaving an opening for Google or other competitors.

• Second, Microsoft agreed to provide a link to the default search program from the start menu, and from a Windows Explorer window. It appears from the report that Vista search will also be an option in those places.

• The third part involves informing the public about the changes: Microsoft will emphasize to OEMs and end users "that there is no technical reason," the report states, that they can't use third-party desktop search tools. In addition, Microsoft will show other desktop search providers how to optimize their search tools on Vista.

Brad Smith, Microsoft senior vice president and general counsel, said in an e-mail that “We’re pleased we were able to reach an agreement with all the States and the Justice Department that addresses their concerns so that everyone can move forward.”

The attorney general of one of those states, California's Jerry Brown Jr., said in a statement that the changes are a victory for consumers: "This agreement -- while not perfect -- is a positive step towards greater competition in the software industry. It will enhance the ability of consumers to select the desktop search tool of their choice." Google's complaint was sent to the attorneys general of all 50 states as well, and many, including California, sided with Google.

Others, however, are skeptical that opening up Vista search will have a huge impact. "No, it's not a big deal...It's a fairly minor change from a strategic perspective," said analyst Matt Rosoff, with independent analyst company Directions on Microsoft.

End users and OEMs can now change the defaults, but that doesn't often happen, Rosoff believes. "The vast majority of users are going to use default search engine," which in most cases will be Vista's search. One prominent exception to that is Dell, which uses Google search as the default tool.

Rosoff thinks Microsoft was "probably a little taken by surprise" by Google's original objections to Vista's search, given that it only works on a hard drive. "I think [Microsoft] had stopped short of where they could have gone. If they had built Web search into the interface, there could have been [greater] grounds for objection," Rosoff said.

In the end, Rosoff wasn't surprised by how meekly Microsoft agreed to make the changes to Vista. "If Microsoft can avoid antitrust cases as much as possible, they're going to try really hard to do that," he said.

About the Author

Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.

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