The Pulse on Google's Antitrust Claim

Is the search titan's complaint against Microsoft and its Windows Vista desktop search overblown? The bloggers debate

News of Google's claim that Windows Vista desktop search breaks Microsoft's antitrust agreement broke Saturday in The New York Times (readers must log in before reading the article). The Google (GOOG) complaint, filed with the Justice Dept. and state attorneys general, asserts that the search function embedded in Windows Vista interferes with other desktop search tools, including Google's own.

The Times' Stephen Labaton uses the scoop to show how far the Justice Dept. has turned around on the software behemoth since it settled U.S. v. Microsoft in 2002.

"In the most striking recent example of the policy shift, the top antitrust official at the Justice Dept. last month urged state prosecutors to reject a confidential antitrust complaint filed by Google that is tied to a consent decree that monitors Microsoft's behavior," he writes.

The official? Thomas Barnett, an assistant attorney general who until 2004 was a chief antitrust lawyer at the firm that represented Microsoft. Barnett never worked on Microsoft at the firm, reports the Times (NYT), but at the Justice Dept. he had recused himself from the case until he was cleared by "ethics lawyers" to deal with it.

Barnett's memo instructing state prosecutors not to pursue Google's complaint appears to be highly unusual, and did not sit well with all the state attorneys general involved.

Google's Two Cents

Google did not comment to the Times. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Todd Bishop, who writes a blog devoted to Microsoft, got the statement:

"Microsoft's current approach with Vista desktop search violates the consent decree and limits consumer choice. The search boxes built throughout Vista are hard-wired to Microsoft's own desktop search product, with no way for users to choose an alternate provider from these visible search access points. Likewise, Vista makes it impractical to turn off Microsoft's search index."

Microsoft says an independent Justice Dept. committee vetted Vista to make sure it did not violate the terms of the settlement. The company also says it tweaked Vista after Google and others raised concerns—although what changes were made is unclear.

Should users be able to attach the Vista search interface to Google Desktop? Bishop sees the question of whether the Vista search boxes can be linked to another search as a "sticking point."

Trumped-Up Charges?

Some bloggers think Google's charges are overblown. Central to the Google complaint is the claim that Vista's "indexer," which organizes information for the search tool, can't be shut off easily. Google says that having the indexer run alongside its own search hurts the program's performance.

But Joe Wilcox at Microsoft Watch writes that there's no reason Microsoft should dial back its Vista search tool.

"True, the Vista indexer doesn't have an easily accessible off switch—and why should there be one? Search is an obvious operating system utility. That said, Vista's indexer will throttle back performance in the presence of another indexer or other applications with hefty processing demands."

Wilcox also says the story should never have been leaked and takes a look at the legal implications. The long and short of it is he thinks the Times got played by state attorneys general looking to score points off the Justice Dept.

Playing Games

Nate Anderson at Ars Technica points out that antitrust accusations fly both ways: Microsoft publicly objected to Google's $3.1 billion buyout of online ad system DoubleClick in April (see, 4/14/07, "Google's DoubleClick Strategic Move"). The company charged that the deal would give Google as much as 85% of the online ad market. At the time, Microsoft said the buyout raised concerns about competition.

"Google has been playing the same game, but it has conducted its campaign in secret and directly with the federal government," writes Anderson.

Well, in secret until someone told The New York Times.

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