Monday, December 25, 2006

APIs for 64-bit versions of Windows Vista

Microsoft sent some holiday cheer in the direction of security vendors this week by releasing new programming interfaces for developers working to create software that can interact with the Windows Vista kernel.

The new application programming interfaces -- or APIs -- will allow security vendors to extend the functionality of the 64-bit versions of Windows Vista. Security companies, including Symantec and McAfee, already have access to the 32-bit kernel, but have been vocal in their complaints that Microsoft has locked them out of the 64-bit version.

The issue is related to a software module called PatchGuard, which is designed to block malicious software from being able to change any key operating system functions in 64-bit Vista. Security companies complained that without the appropriate programming guidelines, PatchGuard would prevent their software from doing its work.

Still Waiting

Although the release of the APIs should make life easier for some vendors, Microsoft isn't planning on simply handing over the keys to the kernel. Natalie Lambert, an analyst with Forrester research who was briefed by Microsoft on the announcement, said PatchGuard is not going away. "Microsoft is rightfully standing by its technology -- as it does increase the security of Vista -- but willing to work with the community to allow them access to APIs," she said.

Executives from antivirus software maker McAfee, perhaps Redmond's most vocal critic over the issue, were quoted in news reports saying that they remain concerned that Microsoft waited far too long to disclose the information McAfee needs to protect customers who will use the 64-bit version of Windows Vista, which eventually is expected to supplant the 32-bit version of the OS.

McAfee and rival Symantec both claimed these allegedly anticompetitive moves by Microsoft prevented them from effectively developing security software for the new operating system in time for its release. McAfee went so far as to charge the company with making "hollow promises" and claiming that Redmond had "locked out" competitors from the Vista kernel, the most basic component of the operating system.

Lock and Key

With the software giant now delivering on its promise just two months after guaranteeing qualified vendors they would have access to the kernel, there remains the question about when the APIs, which are now only draft versions, will be released in final form.

"Microsoft is trying to act as an open book with respect to their policy for API creation," said Lambert. "By providing a public document listing the technical and use requirements, Microsoft is hoping to reduce the number of complaints it is getting." However, Microsoft still has the power to decide which of the draft APIs will be finalized, Lambert explained, which might lead to some additional complaints.

"Do not expect Microsoft to ask for permission," she said. "Instead, expect more communication and openness from Microsoft about upcoming plans."

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