Stung by criticism that it won't be able to ship the massive Longhorn update on time--or ever, Microsoft might have found the excuse the company needs to justify a timelier but less earth-shattering software release. This week, federal regulators at the US Department of Justice (DOJ), which mired the company in several years of antitrust legal battles, revealed that they will soon begin an investigation of Longhorn with an eye toward ensuring that the next-generation OS doesn't violate the terms of Microsoft's US antitrust settlement. Microsoft typically would view such an investigation as a necessary evil. But, for a company struggling to ship anything these days, the announcement might just be the excuse Microsoft was looking for.
  
DOJ and state regulators have been reviewing Microsoft's plans for Longhorn for some time now. Now that the software giant is planning to ship the system in mid-2006, the regulators have scheduled a series of meetings to allay their concerns. In mid-February, representatives of Microsoft, the DOJ, and several US states will sit down for their first Longhorn meeting.
  
Interestingly, the regulators are also voicing concerns about Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2). "\[Our analysis of SP2\] identified several circumstances in which further information from Microsoft is needed to determine whether Windows satisfactorily honors user middleware choices," a DOJ filing that was made public this week reads. Apparently, Microsoft replied privately to those concerns. The DOJ is reviewing that response.
  
As for Longhorn, with the DOJ now examining the new system "in earnest," Microsoft could finally have the scapegoat it needs to deliver a trimmer and less groundbreaking OS release than the company previously promised. If the DOJ complains about middleware, media player, or Web browser integration, Microsoft can simply feign indignation, declare that certain previously planned features are out, and blame the government. Then the company will have a better chance of meeting its internal and publicly revealed milestones for Longhorn, which is currently expected in May 2006, according to recent Microsoft internal documentation I've reviewed.