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Get Real: MS reprises browser tactics with AOL bundle

Groundhog Day

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You might not be alone in thinking that today is Groundhog Day - and that we're doomed to see a reprise of the Browserwars, circa 1997, everyday.

Details of the negotiations between Microsoft and AOL over packaging AOL software in Windows XP reveal that Real Networks remains a prime bugbear for the Beast.

The talks broke up without an agreement over the weekend, but emails from Microsoft and AOL negotiators leaked to The Washington Post's Alec Klein show Microsoft wanted to exclude AOL online subscribers from accessing Real Player to view content. The memos initially appear to be contradictory, but this perhaps indicate shifting positions during the talks. At one stage, according to AOL, Microsoft asked that "any third party code or functionality shall not be in a form accessible or utilizable by other applications or content."

Elsewhere, according to Microsoft-authored documents cited by the Post, Microsoft asked that 30 per cent of streamed content be played by Microsoft Windows media player rather than third parties. AOL sources put this at 50 per cent. Interestingly, Microsoft has now officially confirmed that it asked AOL for immunity against prosecution by third parties who opened up the XP source code. Microsoft flak Jim Cullinan is quoted as saying "it's smart business not to sign a deal that you are guaranteed to have litigation over." A clear admission, it would appear, that built-in Media Player infringes on the third party patents.

Exclusionary tactics are everyday business fare. Unless you've been declared to be a monopoly, of course. The tactics mirror so closely the deals Microsoft sought to cut with ISPs and other potential distributors of Internet Explorer, it would appear that the company has simply dusted down the old Browserwar hymn sheet.

Yesterday, Microsoft's Chief Executive Klaxon Steve Ballmer denied making any "weird or crazy" demands during the negotiations with AOL.

Cannily, Microsoft also played on the recent leaked AOL memos, where the company - displaying the same paranoia as the Beast itself when the latter was threatened by Netscape and Java - talked of creating a platform within a modified Mozilla-based browser.

In another throwback to browserwars-era paranoia, Microsoft flaks have spun that the company is wary of third party 'Trojans' adding instability to the platform.

Most people have forgotten that Microsoft and Real inked a deal to share each others file formats last year, so WMP can do Real files, and Real can do Windows Media. Given a half decent implementation of the Windows Media Player, and Microsoft's huge distribution advantage in bundling Media Player with Windows, you'd expect the market to move gradually in its favour without the hardball tactics. These boys just can't seem to help themselves. ®

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