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MS eases up on WinXP photos, Passport – but only sort of

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It's concessions a-go-go for Microsoft this week - or is it? Today, according to the WSJ, the company intends to take some of the sting out of Windows XP's photo capabilities (thus, it hopes, mollifying Kodak), and just a few days ago it cut back on the amount of information you need to supply in order to sign up for its Passport authentication service.

But in neither case is Microsoft actually addressing the core issue. As far as photos are concerned, the switch involves allowing users of XP to use multiple online photo finishing services, as well as those affiliated (i.e. paying money) to Microsoft. That means Microsoft still intends to leverage XP's role as a vast, pervasive advertising hoarding for its own and for partner products. So is Microsoft a company that builds and sells operating systems, or is it's core business flogging sundry services and stuff to you? The latter, of course...

The Passport move comes in the wake of a complaint by EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) to the FTC demanding modifications to Passport. Microsoft is now only going to require an email address and a password for you to sign up for Passport, is going to require partner sites to use P3P (Platform for Privacy Preferences), and is splitting out Microsoft Wallet into a separate My Wallet service. Passport however still provides the mechanisms for tracking specific users' behaviour on the web, and for other Microsoft operations and other web sites using Passport to aggregate information about users.

This could and will consist of the usual stuff, name, address, credit card details. Microsoft says that it will say what extra information in excess of email and password goes to partners, but really this is all about Microsoft ducking a little but not doing anything serious to address the actual objections to the system.

The photo issue boils down to Microsoft leveraging revenue out of what it anticipates will be a dominant and ubiquitous software platform. There is much else associated with XP which leverages similarly in other and related areas, and Passport squats over the lot. Microsoft already leverages practically everything it's got in order to get everybody in the world a Passport, and as XP is much more geared to online services and is tuned to deliver sign-up prompts to coax the users on, this process can only intensify.

Microsoft will therefore be likely to end up running a system that allows you to be recognised by the people you want and need to know who you are; but it's also providing the tools for the people you don't want to know, and don't want to pester you, to assemble lots of data about you. As a defensive move Microsoft may (not before time) clean up its act when it comes to sharing data across Microsoft sites, but it's not likely to disadvantage its own operations significantly against those of its partners. History tells us that it is, ahem, usually the other way around.

In both cases the objections stem from a blurring of Microsoft's role as the custodian of industry standards with its role as a supplier and/or enabler of services. But then that's what .NET's all about, isn't it? The "concessions" don't go any way towards taking XP and .NET out of the legal firing line. ®

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