Screen challenge to Microsoft

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A TINY American software company has come up with a way to push Bill Gates's omnipresent Microsoft off computer screens - by filling up the centimetre-deep black space below the lit screen with its own "control bar".

Pixel Corporation, based in Seattle, reckons that the tiny area could be the perfect wedge to break up Microsoft's growing control of what users see when they turn on a new PC.

Presently, Microsoft bars computer manufacturers from altering the "opening screen" of its Windows operating system, the standard on most PCs. The software giant can thus sell off its screen real-estate to the highest bidder, or to its own subsidiaries. But this leaves PC makers unable to distinguish their products. Those tactics led directly to the recent lawsuits filed against Microsoft by the US government and a number of states.

However, Pixel's attack is more subtle, and may in the end be more successful. Called MySpace, it consists of a bar that is inserted by software underneath the standard Windows95 control strip at the bottom of the screen.

It is squeezed in by using the black "overscan" space that surrounds every screen. MySpace reclaims that area, and pushes the Windows desktop slightly upwards to allow the user access to 54 applications, documents or Internet sites.

Companies wanting to gain visibility have been quick to recognise that this means they could get onto PC screens without dealing with Microsoft. Pixel already has deals signed with the Walt Disney Corporation, the online bookseller and others, all keen to provide content for the slots on its interface bar, which will be included on new PCs in the US this month from Packard Bell and NEC.

Tom O'Rourke, chief executive officer of Pixel, which was created in a spin-off from Packard Bell, said he came up with the idea of exploiting the unused space last year when he saw a televised sports event pushed up to make room for a scoreboard at the bottom of the screen. "It's a pretty simple idea, and most good ideas are simple," he said.

Ironically, the MySpace bar could bolster Microsoft's position that computer manufacturers have the flexibility to customise their machines and make independent deals with content providers and other software companies.

Mark Murray, a spokesman for Microsoft, said company executives had not yet seen the technology. However, he did not seem enthusiastic. "It sounds like much of what Pixel is doing duplicates capabilities that Microsoft already provides to the computer manufacturer and the consumer," he said.