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MS XP signed drivers regime draws consumer groups' ire

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The US consumer groups demanding changes in Windows XP returned to the fray yesterday, claiming that the OS "is an illegal extension of the company's illegal monopoly, and which will cause significant harm to both the nation's consumers and non-Microsoft-affiliated software firms and Internet service vendors." Which is what they said last month too, but the focus of their latest complaint is interesting, because they've added driver signing to the usual grumps about Passport and links to MS and its partners' services.

The Consumer Federation of America and the Consumers Union have four "central objections" to XP. First Passport shouldn't be bundled with it, and users "should have a choice of authentication systems and Microsoft should provide customer support without users having to sign up for a Passport." For most users, Passport in XP will certainly be virtually compulsory. If you don't know how to switch off the get a Passport popup, then eventually you'll get sick of it, and get one, so as far as we can see it's a pretty blatant monopolising tool.

Second, they want an "open" alternative to the "world of Microsoft-affiliated commercial partners." They argue that built-in features of XP herd customers towards Microsoft services and those of paying affiliates, and that this disadvantages companies if they don't give Microsoft money, thus harming consumers. There's a logic, certainly, and this attack is certainly a lot clearer than their original report, which was something of a rant.

Third, they say Media Player should provide support for high bitrate MP3, "rather than eschewing that format in favor of Microsoft's proprietary Windows Media Audio format." The ground here's a little shakier, as XP does provide this support, you've just got to buy the MP3 plug-in from a third party. We're not going to get into whether or not you can get free high bitrate MP3 again here, but it's going to be a messy one for the groups to argue.

Their final point concerns drivers: "'pre-certification' of all software drivers, while helpful to maintain platform stability, has enormous potential for anti-competitive abuse," they say. We covered this ourselves a while back, but so far the issue hasn't loomed large in the various antitrust arguments that have been fired in the general direction of Microsoft. It ought however to be a concern for the future, given Microsoft's track record, and given that earlier this week it was apparently able to persuade itself it should block non-MS browsers from MSN in the interests of defending web standards. Allegedly.

Guaranteed stable drivers are a good thing, obviously, but Microsoft is able to call too many shots here, and as regards what is and is not 'designed for Windows'. It ought to be an area for concern, and it's good that somebody's finally noticed. ®

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