Ina Fried at CNET today revealed that there will be no Web browser in any version of Windows 7 that Microsoft provides in European Union countries:
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.
The browser-less versions, dubbed Windows 7 "E", will be distributed in all members 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.
Microsoft’s transfer of the Web browser responsibility to the OEMs presumably is the one sure way for them to dodge the continued wrath of the EU bureaucrats although probably not the fines so beloved of the Brussels functionaries. Since OEMs could already add additional browsers to their preloads, it is not too big a leap and hopefully not more onerous that compliance with all the other multitudinous EU bureaucratic requirements. But what about retail box copies?
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 not a direct way to go to Microsoft’s Web site to download one. Microsoft aims to make it as easy as possible for folks in Europe to get the browser, though, and plans to offer it via CD, FTP and retail channels, according to a person a familiar with the situation.
How about side-by-side slots in the retail display and a sign that says, "Buy Windows 7 and Get Internet Explorer 8 Free!"? More seriously, the retail box problem could be a way for the bureaucratic camel to get its nose back into Microsoft’s tent in the guise of "protecting the consumer experience." Still it is probably better for Microsoft than trying to coordinate the shipment of multiple other browser vendors’ code inside Windows 7 distributions with the implicit threat of EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes ringing up her cash register every time Microsoft does not release the latest update of Browser "X" immediately.
There is more detail on the Microsoft rationale from Microsoft’s Dave Heiner (Vice President and Deputy General Counsel) and the gist is that Microsoft wants to ship Windows 7 at the same time in the EU as in the rest of the world and since time was running short, made their own decision about how to ameliorate the browser complaints while the bureaucrats continue to mull it over:
Our decision to only offer IE separately from Windows 7 in Europe cannot, of course, preclude the possibility of alternative approaches emerging through Commission processes. Other alternatives have been raised in the Commission proceedings, including possible inclusion in Windows 7 of alternative browsers or a “ballot screen” that would prompt users to choose from a specific set of Web browsers. Important details of these approaches would need to be worked out in coordination with the Commission, since they would have a significant impact on computer manufacturers and Web browser vendors, whose interests may differ. Given the complexity and competing interests, we don’t believe it would be best for us to adopt such an approach unilaterally.
I wouldn’t bet against further EU fine tuning, but waiting for them is standing still so Microsoft seems to have made the best of a bad situation.
Update (June 12, 2009): The EU Competition Commission has now responded to Microsoft’s plan and forgive me while I pat myself on the back for predicting that they would be particularly grumpy over the retail box sales situation:
As for retail sales, which amount to less than 5% of total sales, the Commission had suggested to Microsoft that consumers be provided with a choice of web browsers. 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.
They were apparently more positive (in a hedging bureaucratic way) over OEM installations on new PCs, but aside from being obviously chagrined over Microsoft’s preemptory action keep beating the drum of the "anticompetitive effects of Microsoft’s long-standing conduct" so we can be certain that some whopping fines are on the way regardless.