Judge favours Microsoft search agreement

A U.S. judge said she favors an agreement on desktop search between Microsoft and antitrust plaintiffs

A US judge has said she will probably defer to an agreement on desktop search forged between Microsoft and the plaintiffs in the US government's antitrust lawsuit against the software vendor, instead of responding to a complaint from rival, Google.

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, said she relied on the plaintiffs, including the US Department of Justice and several states, to suggest solutions for complaints related to a 2002 antitrust settlement governing Microsoft.

"The plaintiffs, as far as I'm concerned, stand in the shoes of the consumer," Kollar-Kotelly said during a status hearing on Microsoft's compliance with the settlement. "Google is not a party in this case."

This month, Google filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft, claiming it was difficult for computer users to change the default desktop search program in Windows Vista. Google protested the proposed desktop search agreement between Microsoft and the antitrust plaintiffs, saying it didn't go far enough. On Monday, Google filed a motion asking Kollar-Kotelly to extend her oversight of changes to desktop search.

Google said in a court brief that "more may need to be done" to allow desktop search competition in Vista. But Google was pleased with Kollar-Kotelly's handling of the issue in court, the company's senior policy counsel, Alan Davidson, said.

"From the beginning, this has been about making sure that consumers have access to the widest possible choice," Davidson said. The remedies proposed in the agreement between the plaintiffs and Microsoft would ensure consumer choice, he said.

There was disagreement between the DOJ and the California group of plaintiff states about whether the Google complaint was substantial, but the plaintiffs have come together on the proposed agreement on desktop search, a lawyer for the California group of plaintiffs, Stephen Houck, said.

The California group believed that Google "raised some very important issues," Houck said. Desktop search is one of a few middleware products since the 2002 antitrust settlement that has the potential to challenge a Microsoft product, he said.

"It was very important to us to protect the potential of desktop search in the final judgment," Houck said.

The search agreement will allow software vendors to register their products as alternatives for the Vista Instant Search software. The default search selected by the computer user or OEM will launch whenever Vista launches a search result window, and the default search will have space in Vista's start menu.

Microsoft will also tell software vendors and OEMs that the desktop search index in Vista is designed to run in the background and give way to other search products. It provide technical information to allow other desktop search providers to design their products to optimise computer resources.

Microsoft didn't believe it had violated the antitrust settlement with its new search functionality in Vista, a lawyer for Microsoft, Charles "Rick" Rule, said. The company improved its functionality, but didn't create a new middleware product that would be covered under the antitrust settlement, he said.

Still, Microsoft entered into the search agreement with the plaintiffs in the spirit of cooperation, he said.

A representative of the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), a trade group that has supported Microsoft in the antitrust case, praised Kollar-Kotelly's handling of the Google complaint. Google's complaint was looking more and more like disingenuous PR stunt, ACT's president, Jonathan Zuck, said.

Kollar-Kotelly hadgenerally encouraged Microsoft and the plaintiffs to work out issues when they arose instead of relying on legal rulings, Zuck said. Google had little chance of pressing forward with its complaint, he said.

"What the judge reminded us today is that there is a process and it works," Zuck said.

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