Google has complained to U.S. antitrust officials about the hard-drive searching tool built into Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Vista, saying that it stymies Google's similar search program.
The complaint, lodged late last year, was revealed by The New York Times in a story on its Web site about the Bush administration's handling of Microsoft antitrust issues.
The new concern comes five years after the resolution of Microsoft's landmark U.S. antitrust case. The New York Times reported Saturday that prosecutors from some states believe Google's complaint has merit and plan to pursue it, despite the U.S. Justice Department's initial decision not to take action.
The Justice Department previously informed Microsoft that Google filed a complaint about the feature, commonly known as "desktop search," confirmed Jack Evans, a Microsoft spokesman in Redmond. Microsoft has not seen the text of the Google complaint, but it is working with state and federal officials to try to resolve the issue, Evans told the Seattle P-I Saturday afternoon.
"Although we don't believe we're obliged to make these changes under the consent decree, we certainly are willing to make an effort to address these issues and make additional changes to Vista," he said.
In a e-mail message Sunday, Google spokesman Ricardo Reyes said Microsoft's "current approach with Vista desktop search violates the consent decree and and limits consumer choice."
He added: "The search boxes built throughout Vista are hard-wired to Microsoft's own desktop search product, with no way for users to choose an alternate provider from these visible search access points. Likewise, Vista makes it impractical to turn off Microsoft's search index."
A Justice Department spokesperson couldn't be reached.
Rivals have long expressed concern that the government's antitrust settlement with Microsoft didn't do enough to keep it from using the dominance of Windows to its unfair advantage in other segments of the market.
It's good that Google is closely scrutinizing Microsoft's activities, said Bob Lande, an antitrust law professor at the University of Baltimore and a director of the American Antitrust Institute, which called for Microsoft's breakup during the antitrust case. Given Google's considerable financial standing, he questioned why the company doesn't file its own civil lawsuit over the issue.
"No one else has the resources to keep an eye on Microsoft other than, let's face it, a competitor," said Lande. In his view, the Justice Department has, through its past actions, essentially given the Redmond company a "get-out-of-jail-free card."
The New York Times cited the U.S. Justice Department's decision not to pursue Google's complaint as an example of how the Bush administration "has sharply changed course by repeatedly defending the company both in the United States and abroad against accusations of anticompetitive conduct."
According to the story, Thomas Barnett, the assistant U.S. attorney general in charge of antitrust issues, sent a memo last month to state attorneys general across the nation, seeking to persuade them to reject Google's complaint.
Rob McKenna, Washington's attorney general, said via phone Saturday that he was not aware of the memo but would look into the matter.
Google, the Internet search leader, has increasingly been offering programs that compete with Microsoft's traditional PC software. The free Google Desktop Search program is one example of Google's expansion beyond its core Web search business.
At a December hearing and in a March report on Microsoft's antitrust compliance, government attorneys cited the existence of a complaint from an unidentified company. But before Saturday, there had been no public indication that it was Google.
According to the New York Times report, Google has complained that computers slow significantly when running both Windows Vista's built-in desktop search program and Google Desktop Search. The behind-the-scenes indexing needed for desktop search programs can drag on computing resources.
There is no simple way for PC users to turn off Windows Vista's built-in desktop search program. Google has asked the court overseeing Microsoft's antitrust compliance to require the company to let users turn off the built-in search program, the New York Times reported.
However, Microsoft spokesman Evans said no one has specifically asked the company to create a new way to turn off Windows Vista's desktop search program. He noted that Microsoft designed the program's indexer to scale back its activities when other programs are active on a computer, so that it doesn't cause the type of system drag that Google is reportedly citing.
"We don't think this is an issue, and we specifically designed it to make sure it wasn't an issue," Evans said.
Prior to Windows Vista's release, state and federal antitrust officials closely reviewed the new operating system, including the desktop search tool, and didn't raise concerns about the feature, he said.
He noted that Microsoft made changes in advance of Windows Vista's completion to address other antitrust concerns expressed by competitors. Google previously raised concerns about Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser defaulting to its own Windows Live search engine in certain cases.
Separately, Microsoft in April called on regulators to closely scrutinize Google's planned acquisition of advertising company DoubleClick for antitrust issues. Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt responded with incredulity at the time, alluding to Microsoft's own antitrust problems.