Microsoft Corp. will allow computer makers to put icons for competing products on the desktop of its new computer operating system — as long as they plug Microsoft's MSN Internet service as well.
Company spokesman Vivek Varma said Microsoft has told computer manufacturers they have two choices for how they configure Windows XP, due out Oct. 25. They can either ship computers with a clean desktop free of any icons or they can add as many icons as they want, but only if they also include an icon for Microsoft's MSN Internet access.
The decision was made public only after computer maker Compaq said Friday it had struck a deal with Microsoft rival America Online to exclusively feature AOL's Internet service on the start-up sequence of computers featuring Windows XP.
The Redmond software giant had previously announced that it would loosen restrictions on the new desktop operating system to allow computer makers to remove the icon for Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser and replace it with a rival browser such as Netscape Navigator, also owned by AOL.
The company said that decision was a direct result of a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that said Microsoft acted as a monopoly. Among other things, the ruling singled its Internet browser policies out as one of the ways the company abused its monopoly power.
Microsoft is now trying to settle the antitrust case with the government, but analysts warned that this latest move to force MSN onto the desktop may hinder that.
Rob Enderle, a research fellow with Giga Information Systems, said the MSN icon requirement appears to undo the concessions Microsoft seemed to give computer manufacturers when it said it would allow the Internet browser icon to be removed.
"Doing this means they clearly are still exercising absolute control over the desktop," Enderle said.
Varma argued that by requiring MSN be featured on the desktop, Microsoft is simply giving consumers a choice of products.
That left executives at AOL, Microsoft's chief rival, fuming.
"It appears that Microsoft is backing off their much ballyhooed itty bitty teeny weeny sliver of flexibility and heading back to the rigid stance that has been slapped down by the second-highest court in the land," said AOL Time Warner Vice President John Buckley.
AOL Time Warner, the New York-based media giant, has long complained that Microsoft restricts consumer choice by featuring Microsoft products over AOL products, chiefly its e-mail product and instant messaging system. AOL also owns Internet browser Netscape Navigator.