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Saturday, May 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S. wants to extend oversight of Microsoft

Seattle Times technology reporter

The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking to extend by at least two years its oversight of Microsoft relating to a specific provision of the broad 2001 antitrust settlement between the company and the government.

In a status report to a federal judge Friday, the government cited Microsoft's continued struggle to clearly present technical documentation around the protocols that allow Windows servers to communicate with desktop computers for tasks such as printing and streaming media.

Microsoft has agreed to extend until at least November 2009 the period it will document and license those communications protocols and pledged to do more to help competitors develop server-related products. There is also a provision for regulators to seek an additional extension to 2012. That would bring the term to the more typical 10 years associated with a monopoly.

The extension request still must be approved by Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. That's expected next week.

The settlement between Microsoft and federal and state antitrust regulators called for government oversight of this issue, and several others, to expire in November 2007 — five years after it took effect.

"This extension will ensure that companies interested in licensing the communications protocols receive the benefit of complete and accurate documentation for the full period of time provided by the court's final judgment," J. Bruce McDonald, deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, said in a statement.

Microsoft went further, voluntarily extending licensing of the protocols beyond the period requested by the government.

"(T)he licensing of these protocols will effectively become an ongoing part of Microsoft's regular product development and business processes," General Counsel Brad Smith said in a statement.

In addition, the company said it will continue to offer Windows source code to licensees and create a lab to help them test and debug their protocols.

Mary Snapp, a Microsoft vice president and deputy general counsel, said the company intends to continue many of the practices required by the settlement agreement "as a set of principles" after its obligation expires. She would not specify which provisions.

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Andrew Gavil, a professor at Howard University School of Law and a past critic of the settlement, said he'll believe Microsoft is reformed when he sees it.

"It's really hard to know whether or not they mean what they say," he said. "They promise everything at the moment when it appears that the government is really getting angry. The question is implementation."

Microsoft's failure to provide clear, complete and accurate documentation on the communications protocols is an issue in its antitrust dispute with the European Commission, as well.

"There's a consistent message now across two very large continents, as it were," said Randal Picker, a professor at University of Chicago Law School. "But it also means documentation is hard. This stuff is complicated."

Snapp said the company has generated about 12,000 pages of written documentation derived from software code dating 1 to five years. Bob Muglia, a Microsoft senior vice president leading the company's efforts to comply on this issue, has described the process as an "archeological dig," she said.

In February, Microsoft dispatched more software programmers (it had earlier assigned mainly technical writers) and Muglia to tackle the documentation problem.

Muglia "ultimately concluded that the current process of trying to fix issues [with the documentation] one at a time was unlikely, in the foreseeable future, to result in documentation that is satisfactory," the parties wrote in Friday's report.

Instead, the company is embarking on a broad rewrite of "substantial portions of the documentation." Microsoft is rewriting the European documentation, which will form the groundwork for the U.S. rewrite.

The Department of Justice borrowed from "The Prince," a 16th-century treatise on management by Niccolo Machiavelli, to describe the rationale for Microsoft's reset on the documentation: "He who has not first laid his foundations may be able with great ability to lay them afterwards, but they will be laid with trouble to the architect and danger to the building."

Benjamin J. Romano:206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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