Microsoft confirms IE8 kill switch in Windows 7

Microsoft Corp. Friday confirmed that users will be able to remove Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), as well as several other integrated applications, from Windows 7.

The ability to remove IE8 was revealed by a pair of bloggers on Wednesday after they poked around Windows 7 Build 7048, a post-beta version that has leaked to file-sharing sites on the Web.

Yesterday, Mike Nash, vice president of Windows product management, declined to comment on the bloggers' reports. "It's unfortunate that builds leak out," Nash said. "But I can't comment on unreleased products."

On Friday, however, Jack Mayo, a group program manager on the Windows team, acknowledged that Windows 7 will include an expanded list of features and applications that can be switched off.

In an entry to the Engineering Windows 7 blog, Mayo listed the applications that can be switched off, which include: Internet Explorer 8; Fax and Scan; Handwriting recognition; Windows DVD Maker; Windows Gadget Platform; Windows Media Player; Windows Media Center; Windows Search; and XPS Viewer and Services.

He also explained that the files associated with those applications and features are not actually deleted from the hard drive. "If a feature is deselected, it is not available for use," said Mayo. "This means the files (binaries and data) are not loaded by the operating system and not available to users on the computer. These same files are staged so that the features can easily be added back to the running OS without additional media. This staging is important feedback we have received from customers who definitely do not like to dig up the installation DVD."

Furthermore, said Mayo, the APIs (application programming interfaces) related to those features are still supported by Windows 7 -- even if the application or feature has been disabled -- if "these APIs are necessary to the functionality of Windows or where there are APIs that are used by developers that can be viewed as independent of the component."

Mayo didn't provide examples of what APIs would still be supported when a user switches off IE8, but presumably Windows Update, which relies on the browser, would remain functional. Nor did he mention the European Union's new antitrust charges against Microsoft, which bloggers Chris Holmes and Bryant Zadegan cited as a possible reason why the company added the IE8 option.

In January, EU regulators claimed Microsoft "shields" IE from competition by bundling it with Windows. Among possible remedies, the EU's Competition Commission said it might make the company cripple the browser if the user installed a rival, such as Mozilla Corp.'s Firefox or Google Inc.'s Chrome. "Microsoft could also be ordered to technically allow the user to disable Internet Explorer code should the user choose to install a competing browser," EU spokesman Jonathan Todd said in an earlier e-mail to Computerworld.

The EU's case stemmed from a December 2007 complaint by Norwegian browser maker Opera Software ASA, and has been joined by both Mozilla and Google as "interested parties" who are allowed to participated on the periphery.

Microsoft has declined to comment on whether the decision to allow users to remove IE8 is connected to the EU's case.

Other applications in the Windows 7 list have been the subject of previous antitrust action or complaints. Windows Media Player, for example, was one focus of a concluded EU antitrust case, and Microsoft gave in to demands made by Google Inc. to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007 to change Windows Vista's desktop search tool. And in 2006, Adobe threatened to go to the DOJ over the "Save As PDF" command in the upcoming Microsoft Office 2007 suite; XPS (XML Paper Specification) is Microsoft's answer to Adobe's PDF format. 

The option to remove IE8 is available only in post-beta builds, which have been restricted to a small group of testers. The company has been mum about the timing of the next milestone, although it has hinted it take the upcoming Release Candidate, or RC, public as well.

A pirated copy of Windows 7 Build 7048, which includes the new removal options, has leaked to the Internet. Traffic in the build has been brisk, with BitTorrent tracking sites such as claiming that as many as 14,000 copies have been downloaded.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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