What it means for us

Microsoft's surprise settlement with the US government late last year represents a turning point in the way we can modify, personalize, and configure Windows. Here's how the changes will affect us.

Changes for End Users
First, PC makers and other OEMs that sell Windows will find Microsoft to be less restrictive. These companies will be able to use, promote, and sell products—Web browsers, email clients, media players, instant-messaging applications, and the like—that compete with Microsoft middleware. Thus, Windows XP PCs that vendors ship in early 2002 might look quite different from those that they shipped on October 25, 2001. Instead of the familiar Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) and Microsoft Outlook Express icons, customers might see icons for AOL and Netscape, or other competing products. End users and corporations alike will enjoy a more personalized experience.

Microsoft will have a uniform pricing structure for Windows that will base prices solely on shipping volume. Thus, the large OEMs, such as Dell, Compaq, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard (HP), will likely be able to offer better prices on PCs than smaller companies such as Gateway can. In the past, Microsoft rewarded close partners, such as Dell, and punished those that wanted to bundle competing applications with their PCs, such as IBM with its Lotus workgroup and office-productivity applications.

Some changes coming to XP will ease integrating the OS into environments in which companies have standardized on competing products. Microsoft will offer a free update to XP that will let PC makers, end users, and corporate administrators use a desktop icon, a Start menu entry, or the Control Panel Add/Remove Programs applet to enable or remove access to IE, MSN Explorer, Outlook Express, Windows Messenger, Windows Media Player (WMP), and other related technologies. Additionally, you'll be able to designate competing products as replacements for Microsoft's bundled applications as part of an automated installation. So you might designate Netscape Navigator as the default Web browser and Netscape Mail as the email client. Your choices can actually replace the bundled Microsoft solutions. So XP deployment in many environments just got much easier.

Changes for Programmers
Another interesting change will benefit companies that want to integrate products and services into Windows. A clause in the new consent decree stipulates that the company must provide developers the information they need to better integrate their applications with the unique features in modern desktop versions of Windows. And developers will have limited access to the Windows source code, under certain conditions.

In addition, Microsoft will release the information programmers need to access all client and server protocols and interfaces in Windows so that third-party applications and services can better integrate with Windows server OSs and programmers can create more intelligent middleware applications. This new openness will jump-start a new generation of third-party applications and services that integrate with Windows similarly to the way Microsoft programs do.

The Uncertain Future
Windows is a crucial tool that we all use every day. If the settlement results in more configuration options and a more open environment for developers, it will be a boon for all of us.

However, Microsoft didn't achieve its position of power by playing strictly by the rules. As written, the consent decree offers numerous loopholes that could obviate many of the benefits I've discussed here. Will Microsoft abide by the spirit of the agreement it's signed and treat its customers, partners, and competitors fairly? Or will we face another antitrust investigation a few years down the road when Longhorn, the next version of Windows, changes the rules yet again? Only time will tell whether we can trust the company to work within the new agreement.