WASHINGTON (AP) _ The antitrust settlement negotiated between Microsoft Corp. and the government could bring consumers new technology from rival companies that works better than ever with Microsoft's Windows system. It also could give computer makers new flexibility in how they design their products.
But critics of the prospective deal say it still would leave Microsoft firmly in the most powerful position in the nation's technology industry, despite tough rulings by the federal courts that the company is an illegal monopolist. These critics deride as ineffective the changes Microsoft would be ordered to make to its flagship Windows software, which runs nearly all mainstream desktop computers.
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates ``is dancing in the corridors of Microsoft because yet again he dodged a bullet,'' charged Ken Wasch, head of the Washington-based Software Information and Industry Association. He said the Justice Department, in tentatively agreeing to settle the case, ``completely caved.''
Consumers already running Windows would not notice any immediate changes to their computers or software; the government isn't demanding any type of recall for versions of Windows already on the market, including the new Windows XP software.
But the agreement would force Microsoft to reveal to rival engineers secret details of the inner workings of Windows. Competitors could theoretically design their own software, such as instant-messaging tools or audio and video players, in ways that operate ``as easily and just as well'' as Microsoft's own products built into Windows, said a lawyer involved in the negotiations.
Critics said that provision capitulates to the continued dominance of Windows and does nothing to encourage competition by other operating systems, such as Linux, since it merely ensures that software from rivals will be able to run under Windows.
``Windows has a lock on the computer industry forever,'' said Norman Hawker, an associate professor at Western Michigan University. ``We will see Microsoft extend the Windows monopoly into handheld devices, interactive television and other telecommunications services.''
The settlement would require Microsoft to place an ``Add/Remove'' icon on the screen to make it easier for consumers and computer makers to remove programs included by Microsoft in Windows, such as its Internet browser. Microsoft also must ensure that its own programs can be actually deleted, not merely hidden from view, without interfering with other software programs.
This provision is intended to give computer makers more flexibility to decide which software to install on machines they sell. For example, AOL Time Warner Inc., which now owns the rival Netscape browser software, could pay a computer maker to substitute Netscape for Microsoft's browser on computers. Computer makers currently would have to distribute both browsers, since Microsoft has made it impossible to delete its own.
Three consumers groups that have been critical of Microsoft warned Thursday that the settlement ``threatens to prevent independent programmers from offering their own applications to compete with Microsoft.'' Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America and the Media Access Project said in a statement that the Justice Department's efforts to settle the case were ``outrageous.''
The disclosures of the inner-workings of Windows, to be made in a secure facility, would involve parts of the Windows computer code other than the all-important ``source code'' blueprints, which Microsoft guards jealously. That distinction is important because Microsoft executives have long been unwilling to hand that over. Company lawyer John Warden told the new trial judge last month that giving away source code would be devastating to Microsoft.