In Microsoft's Windows 7, IE On-Off Option a Win for Users

What's behind Microsoft's decision to let users turn Internet Explorer on or off in Windows 7? The EU antitrust agency may have made Microsoft do it, but the choice is a positive step for users and for competition, say industry analysts.

Leaked post-beta versions of Windows 7 and watchful bloggers let an interesting cat out of the bag late last week: Microsoft is allowing users to remove Internet Explorer 8 and other applications from Windows 7.

Initially, Microsoft refused to discuss the Windows 7 "kill switch", saying only that it could not comment on unreleased products. But the company followed the next day with a post on its Engineering Windows 7 blog listing the applications that can be switched off. These include Internet Explorer 8, Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center and Windows Search.

Hovering over Microsoft's decision is a January filing by the European Union's antitrust agency stating that Microsoft protects Internet Explorer from head-to-head competition by bundling it with Windows. Microsoft wrote in a filing with the SEC that it may become "a requirement that OEMs distribute multiple browsers on new Windows-based PCs."

With antitrust fines from the EU piling up and more on the way for previous Windows sales dating back to the mid 1990's, Microsoft may be extending an olive branch to the EU by enabling the removal of IE8, analysts say. Microsoft has made no official comment on whether there is a correlation between shutting off IE8 and the EU charges.

Veteran tech analyst Rob Enderle, president of research firm The Enderle Group, says that Microsoft should be credited for giving users more choice, but "it also serves to get EU regulators off their back ... and there's no indication that Microsoft would have gone down this path had this not been part of the EU requests."

Microsoft bloggers and columnists are calling the option to remove applications in Windows 7 a long-overdue compromise from Microsoft, regardless of its true motivations.

Microsoft Watch blogger Joe Wilcox recently wrote that although the permission to remove more applications is a reaction to the EU charges, it's also in keeping with Microsoft's vow to keep Windows 7 more flexible.

"Microsoft has done right by expanding the list [of applications that can be removed] and including some resource-hogging programs in the process. There are many businesses that won't need all these features on their PCs, so why have binaries and services running and consuming valuable system resources?"

Enderle adds: "It forces Microsoft to keep their eye on assuring all of the components are competitive and not to simply rely on the bundle dragging along increasingly inferior offerings. Better parts lead to a better solution and a better solution is always better PR."

The only potential downside: by giving users more flexibility to remove applications you are adding complexity and the chance for problems that cause the PC to misbehave. "And on Windows, Microsoft takes the heat for breakage regardless of who is really at fault," Enderle says.

But overall, he says, the decision to give users more choice "is a positive for Microsoft, however they got there."

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