Microsoft has agreed to make substantial changes to a feature of the Windows Vista operating system in response to an antitrust complaint...

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Microsoft has agreed to make substantial changes to a feature of the Windows Vista operating system in response to an antitrust complaint raised by archrival Google.

The software giant will change the desktop search feature in Vista to allow competitors’ products to be set as the default choice for finding files stored locally on a computer, according to a joint report released late Tuesday by Microsoft and the government lawyers charged with enforcing their landmark 2001 antitrust settlement.

Google had complained to the Department of Justice that the built-in desktop search feature in Vista limits consumer choice and violates terms of the settlement. In public statements last week, Google pointed out that the desktop search boxes found in the Start menu and folders of Windows Vista cannot be changed to use a competitor’s desktop search tool.

The changes outlined in the report — a regular, quarterly update on the consent decree that spells out what Microsoft must do to remedy its past anti-competitive conduct with Windows — appear to address Google’s complaint. The company did not issue a statement in time for this article.

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Vista will still handle desktop search in some cases, such as in Explorer and Control Panel windows, where the search doesn’t open a new window to display results. In those cases, Vista will also display links to the default search engine.

The changes will be implemented in the first service pack for Vista. Microsoft has not set a firm date for releasing this software update, but the report Tuesday said test versions will be available for review this year.

Desktop search is an important piece of the puzzle as online services — which can now perform many tasks that were once handled by desktop software alone — have grown in importance.

Desktop search tools from Google, Yahoo! and other competitors can be set to link directly to those companies’ Web search engines and other online services, where the companies seek to draw more users and sell advertising.

Microsoft made a point of not tying its desktop search to its own Web search service so as not to run afoul of competition laws.

Google also complained that Vista’s indexer, which creates a constantly updated database for the desktop search functions to quickly scour, could not be easily turned off. Google’s desktop search creates its own index.

Microsoft said its indexer could be disabled, but that users shouldn’t need to do so because it was designed to stop using computing resources when other applications are running. The company will publish more technical details to help software developers build programs that take advantage of this, according to the report.

Negotiations between Microsoft and the lawyers for the Department of Justice and 17 states involved in the antitrust settlement started in December and continued over the weekend and on Tuesday as the parties ironed out the language that would appear in the joint status report.

While rebutting Google’s points, Microsoft had struck a conciliatory tone in its public statements, suggesting that it was open to considering changes to Vista that would appease all parties involved.

“We’re pleased we were able to reach an agreement with all the States and the Justice Department that addresses their concerns so that everyone can move forward,” Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said in a statement Tuesday night.

There was disagreement between the states and the DOJ over whether the desktop search feature should be considered “middleware” — a term of art related to the settlement. That discussion was made moot because Microsoft agreed to make the changes that would have been imposed on it had the feature been found to be middleware.

The report will likely be discussed in detail next Tuesday during a status hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly on the consent decree in Washington, D.C.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or

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