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Ominous backtracking from Ballmer?

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MS on Trial Steve Ballmer has become the latest Microsoft exec to make his bid in the MS doomwatch stakes. Writing in this week's issue of Newsweek Ballmer predicts that if the US government gets its way, less innovation, higher prices the undermining of "the future success of America's high-tech industry" will ensue.

But come on Steve, considering the purple prose in last week's court filings, surely you can do better than that? Well yes, he can. The government's proposal "would flatly ban any improvements to Internet Explorer." They would effectively "prohibit the addition of any significant new features to Windows for up to ten years." Microsoft's ability to add things like speech, handwriting and gesture recognition would be "shut down for a decade."

We're starting to rev up now, aren't we? There's more. "The government's plan extends well beyond personal computers - it would severely set back... new versions of Web TV," X-Box, Pocket PC, the eBook reader and the Tablet PC.

So there you go, higher prices, Windows frozen for ten years, and virtually any product currently in development zapped. Oh yes, and the hi-tech business and the economy trashed as well. Probably by sinister protectionist Europeans driving black BMWs with tinted windows.

But Steve, of course, protests too much, and lets slip the odd dodgy little nugget while he's doing so. Microsoft's counter-claims do of course wilfully confuse innovation and integration. The government proposal is intended to control the addition of "middleware" (in Judge Jackson's definitiion of the word) to the operating system, and to give OEMs the ability to decline to accept integration.

So if PC companies and customers had wanted Windows without IE (which they did) after Microsoft "integrated" the two, then under the government proposal they could have had it. But there would have been nothing to stop Microsoft adding further innovation to IE just the same.

The government plan also requires that the two Microsoft companies, apps and OS, don't get special access to each other's APIs, and that "APIs, technical information and communications interfaces that Microsoft employs" be disclosed. And this is where Ballmer's Newsweek piece gets into murky territory.

In the past Ballmer himself has claimed that "Chinese walls" existed between Microsoft's OS and apps operations. He stopped claiming this a while back, of course, and has now completed the somersault by saying that over the years "a wide range of great features have started within the applications division, then moved into the operating system so they could be used by thousands of other companies." Frequently leaving vendors of similar great features in the dirt as collateral roadkill, of course.

But there's something else Microsoft has frequently claimed in the past - that there are no secret calls, no undocumented APIs, and no special access for the apps division to features of Windows. Ballmer now, however, seems to be going some way to unsaying this. "The government's proposal would also force Microsoft to disclose to its direct competitors confidential intellectual property that Microsoft has invested billions of dollars to create over many years."

If you were a Microsoft developer, wouldn't that kind of make you wonder to what you extent you were starting to fall into the category of "competitor"? ®

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