Microsoft plans to remove Internet Explorer from the versions of Windows 7 that it ships in Europe, CNET UK's sister site CNET News has learned.
Reacting to antitrust concerns expressed by European regulators, Microsoft plans to offer a version in Europe that has the browser removed. Computer makers would then have the option to add the browser back in, ship another browser or ship multiple browsers, according to a confidential memo that was sent to PC makers and seen by CNET News.
"To ensure that Microsoft is in compliance with European law, Microsoft will be releasing a separate version of Windows 7 for distribution in Europe that will not include Windows Internet Explorer," the software maker said in the memo. "Microsoft will offer IE 8 separately and free of charge and will make it easy and convenient for PC manufacturers to preinstall IE 8 on Windows 7 machines in Europe if they so choose. PC manufacturers may choose to install an alternative browser instead of IE 8, and has always been the case, they may install multiple browsers if they wish."
Microsoft confirmed the authenticity of the document but declined to comment further.
In response, EU regulators said that the move seems a step backward in the retail software arena, but said it could be more positive in the new PC market, which is how 95 per cent of consumers get a new version of Windows.
"As for retail sales, which amount to less than 5 per cent of total sales, the Commission had suggested to Microsoft that consumers be provided with a choice of Web browsers," the Commission said. "Instead Microsoft has apparently decided to supply retail consumers with a version of Windows without a Web browser at all. Rather than more choice, Microsoft seems to have chosen to provide less."
European regulators had said in January that the inclusion of a browser in Windows -- something Microsoft has done for more than a decade -- was probably a violation of European antitrust law. Microsoft disclosed in an SEC filing earlier this year that it believed the EU might seek to force Microsoft to distribute rival browsers or take other action.
Microsoft's decision to offer Windows 7 in Europe without IE appears to be an effort to head off such action as well as to ensure that it can ship Windows 7 in Europe at the same time it does so elsewhere. It comes at an interesting time, though, as Microsoft faces its strongest browser competition in years, with Mozilla, Apple and Google all gaining ground.
"The whole thing is pretty silly," said Forrester Research analyst JP Gownder. "Since Microsoft first took on Netscape years ago there has never been more competition in the browser market."
Firefox is particularly strong in Europe. According to AT Internet Institute (formerly XitiMonitor), IE had a 59.5 per cent share in Europe as of November, compared with 31.1 per cent for Firefox. Opera had about 5 per cent, and Safari half of that. Microsoft lost a full 5 percentage points of market share from April to November 2008.
Microsoft's decision, though, is also interesting, given that the company argued in its long antitrust battle that the browser was an integral part of the operating system that could not easily be stripped from Windows.
The browser-less versions, dubbed Windows 7 'E', will be distributed in all member states of the European Economic Area, as well as Croatia and Switzerland. In addition, Microsoft will strip the browser from the Europe-only 'N' versions of Windows 7, which also removes the Windows Media Player from the operating system and is the result of another move by Europe's antitrust authorities.
In contrast with the N version, though, Microsoft will not also sell a full-featured version of Windows that includes the browser.
"Microsoft will not offer for distribution in the European territory the Windows 7 product versions that contain IE, which are intended for distribution in the rest of the world," Microsoft said in the memo. "This will apply to both OEM and retail versions of Windows 7 products."
For computer makers that want it, Microsoft will offer a free 'IE 8 pack' that allows them to add the browser back in. It's a little more complicated for consumers who buy a retail copy of Windows 7. Because the operating system lacks a browser, there's no direct way to go to Microsoft's Web site to download one. Microsoft aims to make it as easy as possible for us Europeans to get the browser, though, and plans to offer it via CD, FTP and retail channels, according to a person familiar with the situation.
"Microsoft is focused on ensuring that Windows 7 is a successful worldwide release available to the broadest number of consumers, including those in Europe," The software maker said in the memo. "We believe that we need to release these E versions to address the preliminary legal views communicated to us in the EU. We are informing OEMs of these plans now so we can work together to meet our shared goal to have Windows 7 broadly available for a holiday launch."
The software maker says in the memo that it's only stripping the browser from Windows 7 and won't do the same with older operating systems, or with the virtualised version of Windows XP that is part of the free 'XP mode' download.
"This announcement impacts Windows 7 products only," the software maker said in the memo. "Microsoft has no plans at this time to release versions of Windows Vista or Windows XP products without Internet Explorer. This announcement does not impact Windows XP mode for Windows 7 Ultimate and Windows 7 Professional."