Desktop search capabilities built into Windows Vista makes it extremely difficult for users to run Google’s
desktop search instead, and that has prompted the search giant to complain that Microsoft
is once again engaging in anticompetitive behavior along the lines of earlier ploys against Netscape.
However, Google’s complaints to both the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) and the states attorneys general who are monitoring Microsoft’s compliance with its 2002 antitrust settlement have met with mixed results thus far, according to reports this week in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Google’s complaints allege that Microsoft “hard wired” its own desktop search software into Vista, making it virtually impossible for any third-party search tool to replace the default software for searching users’ hard disks.
“Microsoft’s current approach with Vista desktop search violates the consent decree and limits consumer choice,” Google spokesperson Ricardo Reyes told internetnews.com in an e-mail. “Microsoft’s own desktop search product [provides] no way for users to choose an alternate provider,” he added.
Additionally, if users do manage to install Google desktop search, competition between the two search engines’ indexing programs slows the process to a crawl, according to news reports.
While reluctant to comment further due to the “confidential” nature of ongoing investigations, Reyes did add: “Likewise, Vista makes it impractical to turn off Microsoft’s search index.”
Spokespersons for the DoJ and for at least one outspoken state attorney general were not immediately available for comment.
In statements to the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft’s general counsel Brad Smith said that the company is willing to address Google’s concerns but also argued that desktop search does not fall under the purview of its antitrust settlement.
At least initially, Google’s complaints didn’t make much headway with the feds, according to the New York Times. The paper said in Sunday’s edition that assistant attorney general Thomas O. Barnett, the top antitrust official at the DoJ, last month urged states attorneys general to reject Google’s complaints.
The Times’ report also said that Barnett’s previous law firm had represented Microsoft in several antitrust matters, but that he had not worked on those cases and that he also had recused himself from any litigation regarding the software company for more than a year after he joined the Justice Department.
But, according to the reports, several states are still planning their own investigations regarding Google’s complaints, and that could cause the DoJ to reverse itself.
In the meantime, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the Federal District Court in Washington, who oversees the antitrust settlement, is expected to air Google’s complaints at a hearing later this month, both papers reported.
For its part, Microsoft claims that Vista’s desktop search engine’s indexing program does not run when other programs are running – so there is no conflict and thus no way for it to slow down Google desktop search’s indexing functions.
Additionally, Microsoft officials claim the company has bent over backwards to assure third parties get a fair shake with Vista.
“We’ve been working with state and federal antitrust officials for the past two years to ensure that there are no problems with any of the features in Windows Vista [and] these discussions resulted in more than a dozen changes at their request,” Microsoft spokesperson Jack Evans said in an e-mailed statement.
“Desktop search issues were reviewed at length with regulators prior to the release of Windows Vista [and] while we don’t believe there are any compliance concerns with desktop search, we’ve also told officials we are committed to going the extra mile to resolve this issue,” he added.
At least one consumer group, while trying not to take sides, is at least a little skeptical.
“Microsoft tries to get away with what it can and then gives access [to competitors] when pressed,” Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, told internetnews.com. “It’s a really important issue because search is the gateway to the Internet … [so] it deserves the attention it’s getting,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is also investigating Microsoft’s complaints that Google’s $3.1 billion bid in April to purchase Internet ad vendor DoubleClick constitutes an anticompetitive move on the search vendor’s part.