As I write this, Microsoft is working feverishly to complete Windows Vista by its self-imposed October 25 deadline. The company says it's going to make it: Yesterday, on October 13, Microsoft announced that it sees no reason why it cannot meet its previously-publicized deadlines and deliver Windows Vista to its volume-license business customers in November and more broadly to consumers in January. But the big news, really, is that Microsoft is making some pretty serious changes to Windows Vista in a bid to meet its antitrust requirements in the European Union (EU) and South Korea and, to a lesser degree, to answer recent criticisms about Vista security features. I'd like to discuss these changes--and the ramifications they'll have on everyday users.

How we got here

It's probably not news to you that Microsoft is currently embroiled in a messy legal battle in Europe. (Less obvious, perhaps, is that company is also facing similar problems in South Korea. More on that in a moment.) In 2004, the EU's European Commission (EC) charged Microsoft with violating European antitrust laws and ordered the company to pay a fine, release a version of Windows XP in Europe that did not include Windows Media Player (WMP), and release a set of documentation describing to Microsoft competitors how they could more easily create solutions that integrate with the software giant's server products.

Microsoft paid the fine immediately and appealed the decision. A year later, it delivered the Windows XP "N" Editions (see my showcase for more information showcase/windowsxp_n.asp). But to this day, Microsoft has yet to meet the EU's requirements of that final bit, the technical documentation. As a result, the EU has fined Microsoft yet again. And Microsoft is currently appealing both decisions: The original EU antitrust charge as well as the more recent fine for tardiness. It's a mess.

To make matters worse, in 2005, the EU announced that it was turning its attention to Windows Vista. Since then, various Microsoft competitors have complained to the EU about different Vista technologies. Adobe, for example, felt that the XPS (XML Paper Specification) technologies that Microsoft plans to include with Windows Vista would harm its PDF business. (Microsoft originally had planned to include PDF and XPS "Save As" functionality in Office 2007 but has agreed to drop the feature and will instead provide it to users via a free download.) Google complained that the search bar in IE 7 would unfairly push people towards Microsoft's search service. And more recently, McAfee and Symantec complained that Vista security technologies like Patch Guard (Kernel Patch Protection) and Windows Security Center were anti-competitive and would prevent them from delivering features they needed.

I feel that all of these charges, incidentally, are spurious. But with a friendly ear at the EU, Microsoft's competitors have found an advantageous bargaining position. After a steady stream of questions from antitrust regulators there, Microsoft actually announced earlier this year that it may need to delay the release of Windows Vista in Europe if the EU decided it had to make further changes to the product in order to satisfy competitor demands. Furious, the EU responded that it was Microsoft's responsibility to adhere to EU antitrust laws and that Microsoft, and not the EU, would need to ensure that that's what happened. Not so privately, a number of European officials expressed concern to these regulators that a Vista delay there could actually harm European companies. It seems we had an ugly standoff in the making.

Meanwhile, there's also South Korea to consider. Following a 2001 complaint from the country's biggest ISP, South Korea charged Microsoft with antitrust violations related to the unfair product bundling of Windows Messenger with Windows XP. In late 2005, Microsoft settled the case and has since released a unique version of XP there. Called the Windows XP K Editions, this XP version removes Windows Media Player and Windows Messenger and adds links in the OS to competing media player and IM software.

While the Korean case hasn't gotten as much press as Microsoft's travails in Europe, the South Korean Fair Trade Commission (FTC) has apparently been looking into Vista as well: This week's news also mentions that Microsoft's changes to Vista will likely ensure the product won't fall prey to the same set of problems that dogged XP.

What's changing

With antitrust bodies in Europe and Asia and a growing set of security companies hounding the company, Microsoft finally decided to act. This week, it announced a set of changes to Windows Vista that the company says will answer all criticisms. Tellingly, no regulatory bodies or security companies were asked to OK the changes. Microsoft says this is by design, but I'm surprised they didn't do more to reach out to their detractors. In any event, I listened in as Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith briefed reporters about the changes and then spoke with Brad Goldberg, the general manager of the Windows Client Business Group, and Mary Snapp, a lawyer in Microsoft's Department of Legal and Corporate Affairs (LCA) about the changes. Here's what I learned.

First, Microsoft reiterated that it is on track to ship Windows Vista to its volume license business customers in November and will make the product available worldwide in January. This is in accordance to the schedule that Microsoft first announced back in March 2006. "We're still beta testing, but things are looking very solid," Snapp told me. Mr. Goldberg noted that, as with previous OS releases, some language versions would be released on a staggered basis. "There is always some staggering of languages," he said. "We'll provide more specifics in the weeks ahead."

Second, Microsoft announced that it would ship its European and Korean versions of Windows Vista on schedule with the worldwide availability of Vista in other locales. This announcement ends any chance that Microsoft would artificially delay Windows Vista in general, and blame antitrust issues, or just delay Vista in the EU and/or Europe.

That said, Microsoft is indeed delaying some versions of Windows Vista substantially in South Korea. Though the "standard" (non-K) versions of Windows Vista, and Windows Vista Home Basic K and Business K will ship on schedule in January, Microsoft won't ship the "premium" K versions (Home Premium K, Ultimate K, and Enterprise K) until Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1). That release isn't expected until the second half of 2007, and it will ship alongside Longhorn Server. "All five SKUs and Vista Home Basic K and Business K will come out as scheduled," Snapp told me. "The premium SKUs in the K version--those without Media Player or Messenger--those won't come out until SP1."

As far as Europe is concerned, news of no further delays there should be seen as a positive development. "We've had a very constructive dialog with EU regulators," Snapp said, noting that Microsoft has been seeding the EU with Vista betas since March 2005. However, it wasn't until a year later, in March 2006, that the EU expressed any concerns about the product. "We've made changes to Windows Vista as part of that dialog," she added. "And we believe we are now in compliance with the law in the EU and around the world."

The Vista changes come in three primary areas: Security, search, and the XPS document format.

Security change

I want to be clear here: Microsoft security improvements in Windows Vista should be applauded by all Windows users, and any security company that wants to bypass them while not providing equivalent or better functionality is more concerned about their own profits than they are about users. These companies have made two major complaints. First, the Patch Guard feature in Windows Vista x64 versions (but not in the more mainstream 32-bit versions) will prevent hackers, security companies, and, yes, Microsoft itself, from changing the kernel at run-time. Microsoft made this change to make Vista more secure, and few have argued that it's anything but a good move.

The second complaint involves Windows Security Center, the security feature front-end in Windows Vista that alerts users when security features are not present, disabled, or out of date. Security vendors want to be able to turn off Security Center and replace it with their own dashboard. Microsoft wants security tools to integrate with the Windows Security Center instead, because competing dashboards often don't offer all of the functionality of Windows Security Center and users will find it confusing if there are multiple "go-to" points for security in the OS.

Regarding the first point, Patch Guard, Microsoft is creating a new set of application programming interfaces (APIs) that will allow security vendors to access the Windows kernel securely. "We have agreed to create new APIs and are working on them now," Snapp said. "We've done a fair bit of consulting with vendors to enable them to interface with kernel in a very secure manner. As a result, their products will operate compatibly." I asked whether such a major change could delay Vista further, but was told no: This API addition will not delay Vista's delivery at all.

With regards to Windows Security Center, Microsoft is also creating a second set of APIs that will allow security vendors to create security dashboards that replace Security Center and its notifications. "These APIs will suppress Security Center alerts when there is comparable functionality from a third party security center," Snapp said. "But only when there is another console doing comparable work and alerting the user."

Microsoft is also making a third change to Vista to appease security companies. They are adding a section to the Windows Welcome Center that will link to third party security companies and their products. "This is the window you see when you first boot the PC," Snapp added, and it will provide these companies with the same advertisement that Microsoft provides its Windows Live OneCare security suite (which is also linked to from Welcome Center).

Search changes

With hundreds of millions of IE 6 users out there getting ready to upgrade to IE 7 and Windows Vista (which includes IE 7), Internet search companies like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have a lot at stake. If these users can be made to switch their browser's default search providers during the upgrade, the search market balance could shift dramatically. Since Microsoft makes IE, other companies, notably Google, believe that Microsoft stands to gain from this transition. The theory is that Microsoft will simply set IE 7 to use Windows Live Search by default.

That's not what's happening. And as is so often the case, the situation is a bit more complicated. Consider Google's standpoint: If IE 6 users who upgrade to IE 7/Vista were asked to pick a search provider during Setup, many would probably choose Google. So that's exactly what Google wants: They want users to pick the search provider that is synonymous with online search. Yahoo looks at it differently, however. Having fallen behind Google somewhat dramatically, Yahoo stands to lose out if users are asked to pick a search provider during the upgrade. So Yahoo quite clearly would like for there to be no choice at all. Yahoo wants IE 6 users who upgrade to use exactly the same search provider they're already using.

Complicating matters, there are at least four places in IE 6 where users can set search providers, and thus there are four settings that determine what providers are used for different kinds of searching. And then there's Microsoft. Clearly, the company would like to see users migrate to Windows Live Search, but they're also cognizant of the fact that any attempt to push users in that direction will be seen as anticompetitive.

In the end, Microsoft did something that makes sense for both users and the search providers. When a user upgrades from IE 6 to IE 7 (or from XP to Windows Vista), they will be presented with a screen that displays their current default search provider. They can choose to accept that choice or pick a new provider from a long list of choices that includes both major search services (like Google and Yahoo) and lesser-known options (such as Lycos or Ask.com). If the user skips over this screen, they will be presented with it every time they launch IE 7 until they've made a choice. No choice will be made for them if they choose to ignore it temporarily.

For those few users who purchase a retail copy of Windows Vista and install it on a bare PC, Windows Live Search will be the default provider.

XPS Document format changes

Adobe is afraid that Microsoft's XPS document format, which is indeed suspiciously similar to the wildly popular PDF commercial offering, will attract users because of its inclusion in Windows Vista. So Microsoft has agreed to open up XPS as an international standard, and it will still be included in Windows Vista. It's unclear to me how this resolves Adobe's issues, but there you go. "We've agreed to submit the fixed documentation layout format to a standards organization so that it can be broadly available and used," Snapp explained. "It will not be included in Office 2007, however."

Conclusions

For the average Windows Vista users, these changes won't really impact day-to-day use of the operating system. But if they quell complaints from antitrust regulators and competitors, I'm all for it. The only question, of course, is whether these changes do go far enough. Security companies like McAfee and Symantec have yet to respond publicly to the changes, and of course we can expect Vista to fall under intense antitrust scrutiny around the world. Will the changes be enough? Only time can tell.