Internet Explorer 8 can be turned off in Windows 7

A Microsoft Windows 7 group product manager confirmed in an announcement dated last Friday, though which is only making its premiere appearance over the weekend, that in the latest private beta build, users will be able to "turn off" -- to use his own phrase for it -- a greater number of standard Windows features including Internet Explorer 8.

"If a feature is deselected, it is not available for use. This means the files (binaries and data) are not loaded by the operating system (for security-conscious customers) and not available to users on the computer," writes Microsoft's Jack Mayo. "These same files are staged so that the features can easily be added back to the running OS without additional media."

Windows Media Center, Windows Media Player, and Windows Search (4.0) join Internet Explorer 8 and several other features that users will be able to de-select following installation. While the ability to make installed Microsoft features unavailable seems to imply that the company would be capable of offering users the option not to install these features in the first place, Mayo concluded his post by saying the company made an intentional choice to leave the "turn off" option for after setup. Mayo credited user feedback, once again, as the deciding factor.

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"We know some have suggested that this set of choices be a 'setup option,'" Mayo wrote. "Some operating systems do provide this type of setup experience. As we balanced feedback, the vast majority of feedback we have received was to streamline setup and to reduce the amount of potential complexity in getting a PC running. We chose to focus this feature on the post-setup experience for Windows 7."

The notion that Internet Explorer and Windows were irreversibly linked with one another had been used by Microsoft in defense of its "bundling" of the two products, both during the US antitrust action against Microsoft a decade ago and during the recent European Commission complaint last January. And indeed, there remains many elements of shared code -- libraries that both Windows UI elements and IE utilize. But as engineers told Betanews as long ago as last October, when Windows 7 was first officially announced, more elements of the operating system's front end rely on rendering provided by Windows Presentation Foundation, not the HTML rendering engine of IE. So the act of separating the IE front end from the underlying shared components upon which it still relies, may be easier now than before.

The question will inevitably arise, then: Is a Web browser a principal component of an operating system, as Microsoft has argued affirmatively in the past? Like a political appointee telling a Sunday morning talk show host that it's time to "move on" and focus on what "the people" are more interested in, Mayo dismissed this whole discussion -- once the foundation of Microsoft's defense -- as a philosophical tangent that's not worth arguing any more.

"We don't want the discussion about this feature or these choices to digress into a philosophical discussion about the definition of an operating system," writes Mayo, "which is ultimately a challenging exercise (judging by the revision history on the community page), but we do want to improve a feature centered on helping to meet the feedback expressed by some over the summer when this blog started."

What testers discovering the feature over the weekend have yet to reveal, however, is exactly what happens both during and after the "turning off" process. Specifically, does Windows assist the user in seeking other options for a Web browser? Or does it simply leave the user without one? If it's the latter case, then the user will probably want to have downloaded the substitute of his choice, prior to the system's reboot. That may not be as smooth an "experience" as Mayo was alluding to.

But it does seem probable, if not completely clear, that one instigator of this change in Windows policy, in addition to tester feedback, was the EC's latest objections. The turning off of IE, or at least the ability to make the IE front end not a part of Windows, will nullify any argument Microsoft had left that the operating system and Web browser are intertwined. Giving users an option of other brands' Web browsers may not be the company's first choice at this moment, but the likelihood that such an option will appear -- if only in European editions -- has now substantially increased.

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