Windows 7's IE 'off' switch: What took so long?

In a Windows first, Microsoft has confirmed you'll be able to remove Internet Explorer and other previously integrated programs from the Windows 7 operating system.

In a Windows first, Microsoft has confirmed you'll be able to remove Internet Explorer and other previously integrated programs from the Windows 7 operating system. Internet Explorer 8 will be one of nine new options on the "Windows Features" customizable control panel. Windows Media Player and Windows Search are among the other services being added to the list.

Microsoft's Motivations

Whether you're a Firefox fan or an IE devotee, I think we can all agree that providing users the option to switch off a built-in Web browser is a positive step. After all, plenty of people do opt to go with a third-party alternative -- we'll look at just how many, in a moment -- and for those folks, there's no reason to have a default option clogging up valuable system resources.

But why the sudden switch to the on-off switch configuration? Microsoft Group Program Manager Jack Mayo describes the change as coming from a desire to let customers use their "own criteria for choice."

"We ... want to strike the right balance for consumers in providing choice and balancing compatibility with applications and providing a consistent Windows experience," Mayo stated in a blog posting Friday.

Of course, there's also that pesky European Union filing that said Microsoft "shield[ed]" Internet Explorer from "head-to-head competition" by building the browser into Windows. Documents indicated the EU was looking at forcing Microsoft to let users disable at least portions of IE if they wanted to use another browser instead.

Microsoft has declined to comment on whether there's any relation.

An Overdue Change

Whether it comes from an EU mandate or a newfound appreciation for options, the concept of choice over IE's presence couldn't come at a better time. Despite the release of Internet Explorer 8's first release candidate in January, Microsoft has continued its long-running downward slide within the browser market. As of February 2009, IE commands 67.44 percent of overall browser usage, according to data from online analysis firm Hitwise. Firefox, in comparison, holds 21.77 percent of the total, and Safari sits at just over 8 percent.

More noteworthy, however, is the overall trend: From the start of 2008 to the start of 2009, IE lost 10.49 percent of its market share. In the same timespan, Firefox gained 26.8 percent and Safari -- while its totals are significantly smaller -- saw a growth of 42.44 percent. If you use a simple mathematical analysis to project those rates of change into the future (as I did last month), you'll see that Microsoft's stronghold could slip away sooner rather than later, assuming the current trends continue. Regardless of how low it goes, though, one thing is certain: Internet Explorer is no longer the near-universal preference it once was.

So Microsoft, thanks for finally acknowledging that users are making their own decisions and letting go of the idea that keeping your browser present will keep its position stable. The move has been a long time coming, and -- regardless of where your motivation originated -- the adjustment will be welcomed with open arms.

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JR Raphael

PC World (US online)

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