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MS bans mag cover discs for updates, blames Sun

Nasty lawyers made us do it, honest...

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Microsoft has banned the cover-mounting of its software on magazines, and is advising users to go to its own web sites for updates instead. And apparently, it's all Sun's fault.

The decision, which is thought to have emanated from the US, bites particularly hard in the UK, where computer magazines usually include CDs of free and trial software. Historically these have also been a useful source of large patches and updates, especially for those who don't have a broadband connection. In the current (November) issue of PC Pro, however, editor James Morris writes: "Microsoft US has banned the inclusion of any of its code on magazine discs. Presumably, the company assumes we all have broadband to download up to 166MB for DirectX 9b or 134MB for Windows XP Service Pack 1a."

Presumably... But we asked. A spokesman in the UK initially suggested the ban didn't apply to all software, but was unable to name any qualifying products after we expressed disinterest in the consumer software. No, we said, we mean stuff that people are likely to want. We were told we'd have to talk to Microsoft's legal people, but that the ban was related to Microsoft's 2001 settlement with Sun, in which it agreed to cease support of the Microsoft Java Virtual Machine (MSJVM) from January 2004.

Unfortunately, this turns out to one of those cases where Microsoft decides it's going to communicate via statements prepared offline, and where you never actually get to talk to whoever or whatever is preparing the statements. So, first we got the explanation that the move was in preparation for the withdrawal of support for the JVM in 2004, and that Microsoft has "currently got a hold on all cover mounts."

When does the hold come off? The messenger doesn't know. What's the difference between the software you can download from Microsoft and the same software on a cover disc? If you're legally allowed to distribute it, then why can't a magazine distribute the same thing?

The messenger doesn't know this either, and will have to check with legal and get back to us. Which she does, this time with a full prepared statement:

"Downloading Microsoft products from the www.microsoft.com/downloads site ensures that the customer is receiving the most up to date version of a service pack, patch, update or trial product, and also provides the added reassurance that they are receiving the original product. There are also options available for customers to access a number of automatic update services from Microsoft which will scan your computer and recommend software updates that fix problems, add functionality, or provide the latest drivers. These sites do not collect any form of personal, identifying information from your computer."

This, you will note dear reader, doesn't mention the JVM matter at all, but is an attempt to justify a policy whereby distribution channels other than Microsoft are banned from distributing patches and updates permanently. Magazine cover mounts could be out of date, could even be copied (Er, wouldn't they have to be? - Ed). Add in a virus scare and it could have come from the antipiracy mob.

Funnily enough, Microsoft trying to get a lock on the update process was the first thing we thought of, until we remembered the Sun settlement and decided ask them about it. But it's now kind of difficult to see the settlement as anything more than a peg Microsoft is using to hang an 'all your updates are belong to us' policy on. Flip that over though - does not confining the delivery of settlement-compliant software to downloads from Microsoft amount to a restriction of their distribution to users? Over to you, Sun lawyers... ®

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