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Thursday, February 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Antitrust concerns over Vista are raised

Seattle Times technology reporter

Several companies are talking to state and federal prosecutors about antitrust concerns they have with features in Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista operating system.

The U.S. Department of Justice and state attorneys general are gathering information on the complaints and have not decided if they have merit, according to a report filed Wednesday with the judge overseeing Microsoft's U.S. antitrust compliance.

One company has complained about Vista's "Welcome Center" feature, which greets users after they start a new PC. The feature also advertises other products, and Microsoft has haggled with PC makers, including Hewlett-Packard, over this valuable real estate.

Whenever a new version of Windows approaches, there are intense negotiations among Microsoft, PC makers and other companies vying for a presence that will eventually face hundreds of millions of computer users.

But Vista is the first new operating system Microsoft has developed under the eye of antitrust regulators. A key concern is whether Microsoft will use its control of Windows to push consumers to use other Microsoft products, such as its browser and media player.

Vista's Welcome Center also will present users "with various setup options," according to the status report.

It's unclear whether the complaints will prompt more changes to Vista, which is on a tight schedule to be completed and on sale by the second half of this year.

The company discussed Welcome Center's design with the top 20 PC makers "and nearly all of them are satisfied" with the design approach, spokesman Jack Evans said.

"We've worked closely with our partners throughout the development process to ensure Vista provide unprecedented flexibility and opportunity to them," Evans said.

Hewlett-Packard and Dell did not comment on the report Wednesday night.

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The status report gave no details about the other complaints. It said only that regulators "are also talking with several industry members who have expressed additional concerns regarding aspects of Windows Vista."

Only one paragraph of the 20-page report covered Vista; the rest provided an update on a lengthy effort to document server-communication protocols Microsoft was forced to share with competitors.

The report shed more light on Microsoft's motives when it offered on Jan. 25 to let competitors examine portions of its server source code.

Although the offer was presented as a concession to European antitrust regulators, it was also directed at U.S. regulators who have similar concerns about the documentation Microsoft is providing, along with technology it is sharing.

While the European Commission was cool to the source-code offer, it is going over better in the U.S., according to the status report.

"In plaintiff's view, Microsoft's agreement to license its source code is a constructive proposal that addresses many of plaintiff's concerns with the technical documentation," it said.

The report was filed in preparation for a Tuesday status conference in Washington, D.C., with U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who is overseeing the case.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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