Impact of stripping Windows might be small

Microsoft claims that the European Commission's demand to strip the Windows Media Player from Windows will hobble the operating system, but judging from what Microsoft itself says the impact will be, many users might find the fallout to be minor.

For example, without the media player Windows users won't be able to go through the multimedia tour of the operating system when it is started for the first time, Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler said Thursday. Also, certain parts of the help features in Windows use multimedia, which will not work, he said.

Other things that won't work are closed captioning added to media files in the SAMI (Synchronized Accessible Media Interchange) format, the jingle at Windows start-up and shut-down and certain features that are activated when an audio CD is loaded into a computer, Desler said.

Additionally, removing Windows Media Player from Windows will affect Web developers and change a user's Web browsing and digital music experience, Desler said. Many Web sites invoke the media player, and some online music services are based on Microsoft's Windows Media Audio format, he said.

Among the European Web sites that use Windows Media are British Sky Broadcasting Ltd.'s Sky News site and the Web site of the Italian parliament, Desler said.

Microsoft is further studying the impact of removing Windows Media Player, but the findings to date "underscore the point that, yes, we can take out the code, but when you do that you don't have a fully functioning operating system," Desler said.

Brad Smith, senior vice president and general counsel at Microsoft, said Wednesday that removing Windows Media Player would be harmful to consumers and the technology industry as a whole. Installing an alternative player, such as RealNetworks Inc.'s RealPlayer, would not solve the problem, he said.

"Even if one takes away the multimedia code and, as RealNetworks has suggested, installs its player in its place, there will remain over 20 features in the Windows operating system that will not function. There will remain many European Web sites that will not function properly, and there will remain European software developers that have products on the marketplace today that will not function on PCs that have that code removed," Smith said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday, according to a call transcript posted to Microsoft's Web site.

Analysts dismissed those comments as mostly rhetoric. "This won't be dire for most users of Windows," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft Inc., in Kirkland, Washington. "Microsoft's rhetoric on this is a bit extreme, crippling Windows is a bit overstated."

David Smith, a vice president and fellow at Gartner Inc., agreed. "The features you would lose are relatively minor," he said.

Furthermore, stripping Windows of the Windows Media Player should not have an effect on Web developers, according to Smith. "It is not going to affect Web developers. Web developers who develop Web content still have to deal with the reality that there are multiple media players out there," he said.

Both Rosoff and Smith question whether many users will actually ever have a version of Windows without the Windows Media Player installed on their computers. "In general, I think that if a consumer was given a choice they would buy the version with the most stuff in it," Rosoff said.

"I think it is all a pretty hypothetical discussion. I don't think too many users would end up with a version of Windows without the media player," Smith said. Still, Rosoff did say that RealNetworks, for example, could persuade PC vendors to ship systems with only RealPlayer, leaving open the possibility of systems without Windows Media Player.

The European Commission on Wednesday, at the close of a five-year investigation into Microsoft's business practices in Europe, ruled that Microsoft abused its near monopoly in the market for PC operating systems. The Commission fined Microsoft Euro 497.2 million (US$605 million, as of Thursday) and ordered the company to offer a version of Windows without the Windows Media Player software within 90 days. It also ordered the company to disclose within 120 days the details of the software interfaces used by its products to communicate with Windows. Microsoft is appealing the ruling.