Microsoft discussed changes to its communications-protocol licensing program during a required antitrust settlement conference yesterday.

However, company critics questioned whether the court-sanctioned antitrust remedy was working.

Microsoft lawyers outlined changes made to the Microsoft Communications Protocol Program (MCPP), including an extension for up to two years beyond the November 2007 end of the settlement enforcement. Companies interested in participating in MCPP will have until November 2009, or until the release of Microsoft's next server operating system, whichever date is later, Microsoft lawyers told Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly.

The MCPP was the major issue during the hearing, which also dealt with making changes to Microsoft's technical documentation. Critics of the licensing program question its effectiveness in generating competition among IT vendors since a final judgment in the US government's antitrust case against Microsoft was approved by Kollar-Kotelly in November 2002. To date, 14 companies have signed up for the program, which makes available communications protocols in Microsoft's desktop operating systems used to interoperate with its server operating systems.

Microsoft made some changes, including removing some royalties, to the licensing program in January. The latest changes it detailed to Kollar-Kotelly yesterday were described in court documents released on April 14.

Kollar-Kotelly praised the changes to the licensing program, but she questioned the speed at which Microsoft and the plaintiffs are agreeing to those changes and responding to other complaints. "There's been continuing progress," she said. "Microsoft has responded to the requests although in some cases I'd have liked us to move quicker."

Effect 'hard to measure'

Microsoft still enjoys a 90 per cent market share in the browser and desktop operating system markets, said Stephen Houck, representing the so-called California group of states that sued Microsoft in the antitrust case. The licensing program's effect on competition is difficult to find, he said.

Kollar-Kotelly agreed. "At this point, it's difficult to measure its impact on the marketplace," she said.

The changes to the program are largely cosmetic, Ed Black, president and chief executive officer of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said after the hearing. The two-year extension of the licensing program is the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship, he said.

But Microsoft lawyer Charles Rule defended Microsoft's efforts to respond to criticism. The three new licensees since January, including former Microsoft foe Sun, show the program is working, he said. "We have continued our efforts to evangelize the MCPP program," he told the judge.

Rule outlined other changes to MCPP. Microsoft has committed to allowing the antitrust plaintiffs access to its proposed licensing agreement on its next server operating system by August 2007, he said, and the company will make technical support available to companies with questions on the MCPP's technical documentation.

Microsoft will also makes changes to the program's technical documentation because of complaints about its complexity, Rule said. "Our door is open to talk about this, and we do it on a continuous basis," he said.

Kollar-Kotelly scheduled the next settlement status conference for July 19.