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Microsoft Runs Into Bundling Dilemma

It acknowledges security flaws in Windows, but its supporters say adding features could draw more antitrust scrutiny.

March 27, 2004|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For six years, Microsoft Corp. has battled antitrust enforcers for the right to bundle Web browsers and other software into its Windows operating system. The company has staunchly defended its right to tie products together, famously telling Justice Department investigators that it should be able to incorporate even "a ham sandwich" into Windows if it so chooses.

But now, Microsoft is coming under fire for what it isn't bundling.

As Windows users are being plagued by computer viruses, spam, buggy software and Web pop-up ads, some are questioning why the Redmond, Wash.-based software behemoth has failed to integrate security and repair features that would make computers less prone to problems.

"Microsoft has added lots of bells and whistles to Windows to protect their operating system franchise over the years, but when it comes to Windows security and reliability, they've done comparatively little until recently," said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, a Bethesda, Md.-based computer security and training organization.

"It's like they are selling faster cars with more powerful engines but leaving off the seat belts and air bags -- all those critical things that make customers safe when using their product," he added.

Microsoft's critics say the reason the company isn't so eager to add security features is simple: Doing so wouldn't help it fend off competitors whose products could undermine the spread of Windows.

"You would think there would be money to be made in Microsoft having some kind of more effective antiviral program of their own," said Andrew Gavil, an antitrust expert and law professor at Howard University. "But virus programs don't present any threat to their operating system monopoly."

Microsoft executives have acknowledged that they need to do more in the area of computer security, launching a companywide "trustworthy computing initiative" in 2002.

But bundling security features directly into Windows isn't so simple, Microsoft supporters say.

The company, after all, has been punished by regulators in the U.S. and Europe for leveraging Windows to take over lucrative new markets, including Web browsers and software for playing audio and video files. Presumably, a move to add security software would face the same kind of regulatory scrutiny.

"Microsoft is overly cautious right now about integrating new features into its operating system," said Steve Delbianco, a vice president at the Assn. for Competitive Technology, a lobbying group in Washington, D.C., that is backed by Microsoft. When it comes to adding new features to Windows, Microsoft is "damned if they do and damned if they don't."

This week, the European Commission fined Microsoft more than $600 million, ordered the company to offer a version of Windows without its Media Player audiovisual software and imposed broad restrictions on the way the company develops and sells its products.

The European sanctions came 16 months after a U.S. federal court judge approved a settlement between Microsoft and the Justice Department that required the company to let computer makers include competing Web browsers with Windows.

Ironically, some experts say, product bundling is partly to blame for Windows' security woes.

Lee A. Hollaar, a computer science professor at University of Utah, said the widespread proliferation of the Melissa computer virus stemmed from the tight integration of Microsoft's Outlook e-mail program with its writing application, Word.

"The Melissa virus exists only because Microsoft expanded Word documents to contain functions that let it access the Outlook address book," Hollaar said.

Similarly, he explained, when the Internet Explorer Web browser was folded into the operating system, it exposed Windows to greater security risks from the Net.

Whatever the reason for such troubles, many computer users are eager for Microsoft to come up with a solution and build it into Windows.

"I think they deliberately make their software unreliable," said Patrice Henry, a student in Las Vegas who is still haunted by a computer crash two years ago that she believes was caused by a virus that spread through the Internet.

"I kept getting computer errors where Windows wouldn't boot up. If Windows came with anti-virus software, maybe it wouldn't have crashed."

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