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Leaked Windows 7 Build Lets Users Turn Off IE8

Is this a new Microsoft? Two bloggers say they've found evidence Microsoft plans to give users the ability to easily disable and delete the Internet Explorer 8 browser in the forthcoming Windows 7. The bloggers identified the feature in a recent build of a pre-release version of Windows 7.

If true, the disable and delete options indicate increasing flexibility by Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) when it comes to users' browser choices.

Such a surprise move may also help Microsoft soften the blow from the European Commission, which served Microsoft in January with a "statement of objections," accusing Microsoft of illegally tying IE to Windows going back to 1996.

It may also make it significantly easier for IE competitors, such as Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera, to make headway in the browser market share wars.

The new feature was discovered earlier this week by Microsoft enthusiast site Aeroxperience.org as well as by blogger Chris Holmes on his Chris' Repository of Knowledge site.

"I couldn’t believe this when I saw it, but it’s true ... Internet Explorer 8 is fully removable in Windows 7 build 7048," Holmes said in a posting Tuesday. "I believe this fully squashes the case that the EU has against Microsoft?"

The two blog sites both found the addition in what's known as "build 7048," an interim build of the pending operating system release. Both sites posted instructions on how to disable IE8 on build 7048, which requires two reboots.

However, the box that needs to be unchecked is easy to find. It's located in the control panel.

"Upon completing the second reboot, you will notice that Internet Explorer 8’s components are actually still in Windows. The major changes will be that IE8 will be missing from 'Set Program Defaults,' Windows won’t complain about IE8 being missing, and iexplore.exe will no longer exist underneath the Internet Explorer directory even though the directory and every IE8 dependency therein will still exist," said a post Wednesday on Aeroxperience.org.

A Microsoft spokesperson said that the company is not prepared to comment on the bloggers' discovery.

Windows 7's one and only beta test release shipped to the public on January 10. Availability of the beta release ceased on February 10, and InternetNews.com reported last week that the last stage of testing – known as a release candidate, or RC – is likely to begin in mid-April.

An RC is the final step in testing before the code is released to manufacturing, or RTM, ultimately leading to what Microsoft describes as general availability, or GA – that is, sale to the public and corporate customers.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, a 64-bit version of build 7048 was already leaked to many BitTorrent sites, including mininova and thepiratebay. A 32-bit version of build 7048 has not yet appeared.

"With the problems they're facing from the European Commission, it wouldn't be unusual for them [Microsoft] to try to comply with their concerns," Michael Cherry, lead analyst for operating systems at Directions on Microsoft, told InternetNews.com.

Indeed, it is not unusual for Microsoft to add features after beta testing has concluded on a product. Last week, for example, the company explained that it has added other new features since the end of the beta test cycle. Perhaps most notably, Microsoft is changing the way Windows 7 handles User Account Control activities

"If IE8 can be turned off, it would make it harder for the EC to make a case against Microsoft," Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, told InternetNews.com.

A more competitive browser market?

An open question, however, is what will opening up to third-party browsers do for Microsoft's slowly waning dominance of the browser market.

According to browser usage statistics from tracking firm Net Applications, IE currently has 67.4 percent of the browser market, while Mozilla Firefox has 21.8 percent, and Apple Safari has 8 percent. Opera, the Norwegian browser maker that initially filed the current complaint against Microsoft with the EC regarding illegal tying, holds a miniscule market share of 0.7 percent.

Finally, the EC may be signaling a softening of its stance vis-à-vis Microsoft as well. Wednesday the EC's competition directorate issued a press release saying that Microsoft has done so well in providing documentation for its products in the earlier 2004 antitrust case, that Microsoft no longer needs continuous oversight of document delivery.

Still, however, nothing is a lock until Windows 7 actually ships.

"Until we get a real frozen RTM [release], who knows what will ultimately be in there or not," Bajarin said.