Give Microsoft a bit of credit for its seemingly never-ending flexibility: In response to a horrifically baseless charge from Internet search giant Google, the software giant this week has agreed to make major changes to Windows Vista (see my review). These changes will arrive as part of Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), now due in beta form by the end of 2007. Microsoft had originally planned to ship the final version of Vista SP1 by this time, alongside Windows Server 2008 (see my Beta 3 review). From what I can tell, the software giant is now using this new set of changes as its semi-official excuse for delaying Vista SP1, though to be fair, the company will publicly claim it's never made any promises about the schedule for that release. That, however, is another story.

For now, we're left with the messy results of a clash of titans, Google and Microsoft. In general, I'd argue that Microsoft's newfound willingness to change its products at the proverbial drop of a hat is a good thing: Previously, Microsoft made changes to Vista based on complaints from both competitors and customers. (For more information, see my articles Last Minute Changes to Windows Vista and Licensing Changes to Windows Vista, respectively.) This time around, the changes arose out of a complaint made by Google, the clear victor in the battle for Internet search and advertising, and an increasingly powerful force in Web-based applications and services like email, calendaring, digital media storage and distribution, and so on. Why Microsoft decided to bend to this complaint is unclear. But in this article, I will examine the complaint and the details of Microsoft's plans to change Windows Vista. It is, quite simply, an unexpected turn of events.

Sowing the seeds of discontent

It all starts back in 2004. In the wake of Microsoft's US antitrust settlement (from 2002) and a related antitrust slap-down by the European Union (EU, from March 2004), various Microsoft competitors approached regulators on both sides of the Atlantic to complain about Microsoft's plans for Windows Vista (then known by its codename, Longhorn). Given Vista's long gestation period, it's hard sometimes to remember the climate of 2004: Microsoft was still riding high on its first exciting public revelations about Vista's feature-set, which came at the October 2003 Professional Developers Conference (see my show report). It was a heady, almost giddy time, and it seemed like Microsoft could do no wrong. Back then, the OS that would be Vista was full of promise.

One of the major Vista features Microsoft showed off, incidentally, was instant desktop search. Not surprisingly, after the PDC, Microsoft competitors tripped over each other announcing their own desktop search products: Google shipped a beta of Google Desktop Search in October 2004, while Apple announced its Spotlight feature for OS X in June 2004 but didn't release it until April 2005. So the record shows that Microsoft revealed its plans for instant desktop search for Windows before any of these companies. But with Vista increasingly delayed over the years, Microsoft shipped its own instant desktop search add-on for Windows XP, called Windows Desktop Search (see my review). That product was announced in July 2004.

Given that Microsoft had announced and fully divulged its plans for instant desktop search before any of its competitors, it makes sense that the Vista antitrust complaints that began appearing that year concerned other issues. The EU antitrust complaint from March 2004, for example, included a dramatic functional change that required Microsoft to ship a version of Windows that did not include Windows Media Player. (This change, incidentally, met with massive resistance from consumers and PC makers, neither of which ever actually purchased the stripped-down Windows version. Furthermore, in the years since, Apple's iTunes product has completed its domination of the digital music market, rendering the EU verdict moot.)

Microsoft had previously agreed to change Windows XP in order to quell antitrust concerns, and those changes would presumably carry over to Vista: Using a semi-simple control panel, users would be able to configure built-in or third-party applications to handle such "middleware" duties as Web browsing, email, instant messaging, and media playing. (Interestingly, Windows Vista is more elegant than XP in this regard because Vista lacks the built-in shell links to certain digital media-related services.)

Late in the game, Microsoft furthermore agreed to change Vista further. In October 2006, with Vista just about completed, Microsoft announced a set of functional changes to Vista that it said would meet all outstanding complaints. The company said it would change its policies about a security feature called Kernel Patch Protection, or Patch Guard, allowing third-party security companies like Symantec and McAfee, both of whom were very vocal in complaining about this feature, access and change the Vista kernel at run-time. Microsoft also modified the search feature in Internet Explorer 7 so that customers could more easily change their default search engine and retain their existing settings in an upgrade (And yes, Google was the only company complaining about this feature). Finally, Microsoft agreed to make its XML Paper Specification (XPS) document format an international standard in response to complaints from Adobe, which makes the competing PDF format. (Microsoft also removed XPS from Office 2007, in a related move, though customers can download a free XPS output add-on.)

And with that, Vista sped towards completion. Microsoft finalized the product just weeks later, shipped business versions in November 2006 and shipped Vista broadly to consumers and other users at the end of January 2007. That, we thought, was the end of the story: Microsoft had shipped a major new Windows version that contained major concessions to both antitrust regulators and its competitors.

Google complains about Instant Search

There's just one problem. That wasn't really the end of the story. Google, as it turns out, had another complaint. According to court records, Google complained secretly to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) in December 2006 (after Vista was finalized) that the Instant Search feature in Windows Vista was anti-competitive. This complaint, which wasn't revealed publicly until June 2007, is wrapped in controversy. Not only was the complaint made in secret and withheld from Microsoft until April 2007, the DOJ's top antitrust official, Thomas O. Barnett, apparently undertook a secret campaign in which he attempted to coerce the various US states involved in the Microsoft antitrust settlement to not pursue the matter.

Think about that for a second: The DOJ, which previously spearheaded the US antitrust battle against Microsoft, was actually secretly campaigning for the company behind the scenes. It turns out that Barnett was formerly employed by the law firm Covington & Burling, which represented Microsoft during its US antitrust settlement. Barnett says that he did not participate personally in that settlement, though he did represent Microsoft in other matters. Furthermore, Barnett says he was cleared by DOJ ethics officials to work on the Microsoft decree at the agency. But this revelation was never made to the US states, which were shocked when they were privately petitioned to ignore the Google matter.

In fact, the US states were so appalled by this apparent ethical lapse that they might have given the Google complaint more merit than it deserves. Faced with a full-fledged rebellion, the DOJ then reversed its decision to support Microsoft in this matter and began working with the states. While not unprecedented, such a change of heart is apparently quite rare at the DOJ.

So what does this complaint allege? When it was publicly revealed a week ago, the complaint seemed completely baseless, and I wrote as much in a June 10, 2007 editorial in WinInfo Daily News. Now, however, we have more details about the complaint. And while I still believe Google's complaint to be baseless given the history of desktop search and the fact that Google is pursuing its own monopoly in Internet search and attempting to extend that monopoly to PC desktops, we can at least see the full picture. Here's what Google complained about.

First, Google believes that desktop search, or what Microsoft calls Instant Search in Vista, is middleware subject to the same requirements as other Windows middleware. That is, like Web browsers, email applications, instant messaging applications, and media players, consumers and PC makers should be able to swap out Microsoft's desktop search feature for third party desktop search products.

Second, Google asserts, sort of, that Vista, generally, or Instant Search, specifically, makes its own desktop search product, Google Desktop Search (GDS), perform poorly. In truth, the issue is less dramatic: What's really happening is that both Instant Search and GDS work in similar fashion: Any time a file on the PC changes, the index in both services needs to be updated so that later search results are accurate. With two indexes running simultaneously, the performance of the PC suffers and the entire PC, and not just GDS, runs more slowly.

Third, while Microsoft has provided UI entry points for Instant Desktop search in Windows Vista, these entry points--which include search boxes in Windows Explorer windows, and the Search item in the Start Menu--are not configurable for third party search products. Google would like to be able to turn off Instant Search when GDS is installed and access those UI entry points.

Microsoft says complaint is baseless ... briefly

Microsoft's reaction to the Google complaint was initially as strong as my own reaction. Indeed, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer even echoed my opinion when he described it as "baseless." However, the company's public posturing was apparently just that, posturing. Behind the scenes, Microsoft was working with antitrust officials and, implicitly, with Google to come to a compromise. And really, if you're looking for any further evidence that the Microsoft of today is a cowed tech titan and not the belligerent, abusive monopolist of a decade ago, look no further than this agreement. No, Microsoft did not give in completely to Google. But it really did bend over backwards to do right by its increasingly powerful competitor. Here's what they agreed to change in Windows Vista.

Changes to Instant Search in Vista SP1

Starting with Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), which Microsoft says will now ship in beta form by the end of 2007, the company will make the following changes:

First, Windows Vista will be modified so that desktop search is treated like other so-called middleware like Web browsers, email, instant messaging, and media players. Consumers and PC makers will be able to switch from Instant Search to GDS or other third-party desktop search products if they'd like. It's unclear, however, whether doing so will entail a performance hit, as the change to a third party desktop search product will not actually disable Instant Search. (See below.)

Second, Windows Vista will be modified so that users who configure a third party desktop search product will encounter that product's user interface when they click the Search item in the Vista Start Menu. However, users who access the search box in Windows Explorer windows will still receive search results from Instant Search, even when they've configured a third party desktop search product as the default. Microsoft will allow third party desktop search developers to create a link, next to the search box in Explorer windows, which, if clicked, will launch the UI for the default desktop search product.

Third, Microsoft will inform PC makers, third party developers, and users that Instant Search will run in the background, even when it is not the default search product. However, Instant Search will "cede precedence" to the default desktop search product, from a PC resources perspective. Thus, PC performance should not suffer as much as it does now under the current scheme. (Where the two search engines are essentially duking it out.) Microsoft will provide Google and others with technical information about designing their products such that they minimize their performance hit on the system.

Final thoughts

Microsoft notes that the Google complaint is the only "substantive" third-party complaint received by the DOJ in the past several months. (The DOJ received 14 non-substantive complaints, all of which were ignored.) But there are several amazing aspects to this change, none of which are related to the actual complaint, which I still find baseless and anti-competitive. First, why did the DOJ keep Google's complaint secret and then attempt to coerce the states to ignore it? And why did Microsoft capitulate on this feature? It announced desktop search long before Google, and it's pretty clear that Google's GDS came about only after Microsoft made public its plans for Vista. Finally, if Microsoft isn't going to give Google everything it wants--like access to Vista's Explorer window-based search boxes--why even bother? Third party desktop search will still be a second-class citizen on Vista. In the end, I'm fascinated that Microsoft is making this change. I just don't understand why they are bothering to do so.