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Gartner sees civil lawsuit brewing over WinXP

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A civil lawsuit is likely to be filed against Microsoft over some of the features being built into Windows XP, says Gartner Group. In a research note published this week analysts Michael Silver and Thomas Bittman say that Microsoft's loosening of OEM licensing arrangements regarding IE is just "one more step" in the legal process, and that the government legal case is "far from over."

Gartner also says there's some chance of such a lawsuit delaying shipment of WinXP beyond Q4. Given the timescales, however, this would require a successful application for an injunction covering the same kind of territory as Judge Jackson's preliminary injunction over IE integration (that one was later overturned).

Essentially, this week's changes in the IE terms and conditions are relatively minor. OEM licensees will be allowed to remove the IE and MSN Explorer icons from the desktop (they are not, of course, on the desktop anyway in WinXP), and from the start menu. Their rights here however simply go as far as being allowed to remove easy user access to IE, rather than to remove IE itself. Microsoft will be putting IE back in the add/remove programs routine, so the users will be able to take it out. But if they don't know it's there because the OEM has taken away access, why would they? Life's a puzzle, sometimes...

The other piece of Microsoft's peace offering is that OEMs will be allowed to put their own icons on the desktop if they want; so what we've got is something that might have help avert the destruction of Netscape if it had happened, three years ago, but that has very little relevance to the situation today. It does have some attractions for the OEMs and AOL, as Gartner argues, so you could maybe see this aspect of it as a handy little bribe to shut up some potential antagonists.

AOL and other services will have the opportunity to cut deals to get their own icons onto WinXP machines, and the OEMs will be able to push their own products and services with desktop icons too. Microsoft doesn't say anything about letting them put their icons in the start menu, so it's just possible there's a gag brewing there. Nor does it specifically mention the status of Outlook Express, which currently comes along with IE and isn't removable - will this continue to be the case, or will it be split out again (and thus maybe remain unremovable)?

It's also not clear how much of IE will actually get removed if you use add/remove. Some of it is now needed by Help, Explorer, Active Desktop, Media Player et al, so the removal isn't going to be much of a removal at all, given that Microsoft isn't about to go re-engineering WinXP at RC1 stage. Works, Encarta and Office 2002 also require IE, so OEMs who bundle these will find it best not to go messing around with IE beyond hiding the icons.

So, a very small earthquake, and otherwise, integration proceeds apace. XP builds in Messenger and Windows Media Player, both weapons in wars Microsoft is still fighting, rather than (as is the case with IE integration) one left over from the war it's already won. And the new generation of Microsoft products drives users to other Microsoft products and services more blatantly and relentlessly than ever before.

The conditions for a new, civil lawsuit certainly exist, but who's going to mount it? In the IT industry at least, it's difficult to see an obvious candidate. ®

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