Why some middleware should be bundled with the operating system

Anti-trust laws are supposed to protect consumers from monopolistic companies. As such, it is hardly surprising that Microsoft regularly finds itself in court facing yet another anti-trust suit, but the latest move by the US government concerns me greatly.

I have a licensed version of Windows XP Professional on my laptop, so I’m not bothered by the Windows Genuine Advantage program, whereby users have to prove that their copy of Windows is legitimate before downloading additional software.

According to the Windows IT Pro magazine network WinInfo Daily Update:

“Windows Genuine Advantage is designed to reward owners of non-pirated Windows copies with value-added advantages for being legitimate customers. Like Product Activation, Windows Genuine Advantage seeks to curb software piracy, which various analyst groups say is rampant around the world. IDC reports that software piracy is a $30 billion problem, with pirated software accounting for about 30 percent of all software used worldwide; in the United States, that figure is 23 percent.”

After all, Microsoft is facing competition in areas where it has previously dominated (desktop and low-mid range server operating systems, office productivity suites) and it needs to protect its revenues whilst not being seen as anti-competitive. As such, users need to see that they get something back – additional functionality for example, which is where my anti-trust worries come into play.

Last week, federal regulators at the US Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed that they will soon begin an investigation of the next version of Windows (codenamed Longhorn) to ensure that it doesn’t violate the terms of Microsoft’s US antitrust settlement. The DOJ are also voicing concerns about Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), claiming that they require further information from Microsoft in order to determine whether Windows satisfactorily honours user middleware choices.

SP2 is a massive security update, but it does include some new functionality – most significantly a much improved Windows Firewall. That may or may not be considered middleware, but we can’t continue to lampoon Microsoft for security flaws at the same time as stopping them from shipping security features within the operating system. On the same level, we should expect anti-malware functionality too, and for that matter, anti-spam capabilities in Exchange. These features are all being implemented, but if the DOJ (and the European Union) get their way, Microsoft will be severely limited in what it can ship to its legitimate, paying customers.

In the same way that many of the infrastructure deployment techniques that I have practised for years are now viewed as commodities and my company has to find new areas in which to add value, so are some of the software products which Microsoft is criticised for bundling within Windows (browser, firewall, etc.). Or to take another example, who would consider an operating system without a TCP/IP stack today? (something which once upon a time was an added extra with an associated cost). Those who have built a business around such commodities must find new areas in which to innovate, and leave Messrs Gates, Torvalds, and Jobs to include what have become basic system requirements in their operating systems.

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