Win2k SP3 – how to uninstall MS apps, or not…

Now you see it, oops, there it is again

Microsoft yesterday began spinning the proposed MS-DoJ antitrust settlement, telling reporters it introduced new, uniform licensing terms for its top 20 OEMs on August 1st (the day Licensing 6 kicked in), and that it would be disclosing details of 272 APIs (so there's an official API counter somewhere in Redmond) and offering 113 proprietary protocols for license.

The effects of these actions won't be clear for some time yet, but given that Microsoft has been insisting its own programmers don't get preferential access to APIs for years, one suspects. With the release of Windows 2000 Service Pack 3, however, it's been possible to see how at least one part of the proposed settlement, the hiding of Microsoft middleware and its replacement by alternative applications, works - or not.

The Register applied SP3 to the ancestral Thinkpad as part of the annual OS hosing, which generally takes place during the vacation. Yes, we take the Thinkpad on vacation with us, along with two PDAs, three other computers, a hub, a wireless access point and a giant pile of software - possibly more of this deep sadness anon.

SP3 applied onto a fresh installation of Windows 2000 provides you with a couple of capabilities relevant to the settlement, and something very similar, judges permitting, should ship with WinXP SP1. First of all, you can hide IE, Outlook Express and Media Player via the add/remove feature. This is something you used to be able to do anyway, and to some extent you could even actually uninstall the things, albeit frequently leaving large piles of bloat lurking in a directory somewhere, ready to spring into action if you showed the slightest inclination to put them back.

And in some instances it's possible even now to get things that don't appear in the add/remove of XP to show up there by adding the odd switch to the registry. You can do this with Messenger, for example, swo not all of this stuff is anything like as hard and Windows-breaking as Microsoft argued in court.

But the real wackiness of this implementation of the settlement Ts & Cs lies in the addition of a Set Program Access and Defaults entry to the start menu. This is the bizarrely byzantine route Microsoft has chosen to follow to make it "easy" for users and application providers to slot in non-Microsoft middeware. It is supposed to work through application providers tweaking their software so that it's aware of this feature. Naturally, none of the software people are actually using right now is aware of it, so it's of precious little utility for people applying service packs to existing systems.

After hiding the usual suspects via add/remove, we installed Opera, then took a turn through Set Program Access. Opera isn't aware of this, and although all of the relevant Microsoft middleware had already been zapped via add/remove, the only entries in Set Program Access are those very Microsoft applications. Not only that, the UI is sufficiently confusing for you to think you can set a program (Opera here, for the sake of argument) as the system default by checking a box over by the IE entry. This doesn't happen, because your build of Opera isn't compliant with the system, and what happens instead is that IE is reset as the system default.

The layout has entries for "use my current program" or "use Internet Explorer" (in the case of browsers) over to the left, and a "show this program" check box over to the right. So if you have "current program" checked rather than IE, you'd expect the "show program" check to relate to this program, rather than IE. But it actually makes IE reappear, at least in the case of non-compliant programs. The box is actually alongside IE, rather than the unnamed current program, and presumably another checkbox would appear next to this if it were compliant, and therefore was named. Down at the bottom, meanwhile, it says if you're having trouble getting your app to work with the system, you should contact your vendor. Which could mean a lot of irritating support calls for MS' rivals...

Aside from the support calls, if rival middleware suppliers don't rejig their software to be aware of Set Program Access, then it seems to us that it's more likely that Microsoft middleware will remain the default applications. Set Program Access provides Windows with a new central UI for setting system defaults, it's prominently displayed, people are more likely to use it than going straight to add/remove, and the playing field isn't exactly level, if you think about it. Microsoft apps hidden in the system still appear in it, while even compliant non-MS apps that aren't installed on the system don't (which isn't anything like as dumb a thing to say as it sounds - Microsoft could provide entries of for major rivals like Netscape or RealPlayer).

The user experience for people buying from PC companies who've done deals with Microsoft's rivals will likely be different. Presumably if a company has opted to ship with Netscape, then it will have arranged for Netscape to appear in Set Program Access, but will it be possible for it to arrange for IE not to appear? We doubt it. ®

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