Microsoft to offer IE8 at retail for EU Windows 7 buyers

What Microsoft takes away, it gives back after the fact

Microsoft will offer European customers an "Internet Pack" that includes IE8 when they buy a retail copy of Windows 7, which will be sold sans browser, the company said late last week.

Although Microsoft announced last week that it will ship Windows 7 minus Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) -- the move was prompted by accusations from antitrust regulators that the company's bundling stifles competition -- it will essentially give retail customers the browser, albeit separately.

"There will be a [Windows 7 ] Internet Pack available to consumers who buy [the full packaged product], a Microsoft spokeswoman confirmed, talking about the various upgrade editions that will be sold to XP and Vista users.

The Windows 7 Internet Pack will also include Windows Live Essentials, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft who was briefed by Microsoft on its plans. "There'll be some sort of display at retail," said Rosoff, who added that retailers would either give away the Pack or charge a nominal fee to cover the cost of the media.

Windows Live Essentials is a pseudo suite that includes the Windows Live Mail desktop e-mail client, Live Messenger, Live Movie Maker and other software from the "Live" line. Many of the programs were bundled with Vista, but Microsoft dumped them from Windows 7; instead, users must download Essentials after the fact.

Microsoft will also make IE8 available to European Windows 7 users via FTP download, the almost-forgotten "file transfer protocol," said the company spokeswoman. "[Those] distribution details are still being worked out," she said.

Even without a browser, Windows 7 users can download software via FTP by using the operating system's file manager. In Windows Explorer, users can set up a new "network location" using a wizard-like tool, then specify an FTP server with the syntax "ftp://ftp. address.com," such as "ftp.mozilla.org/pub/mozilla.org/firefox," where Firefox is located.

No other browser maker has yet said it will offer its software to Windows 7 users via a similar program at retail, or by providing the browser free-of-charge on CD. Mozilla, however, currently sells a Firefox 3.0 CD for $4.59. Most people, of course, will acquire Windows 7 on a new PC. Computer makers, Microsoft said last week, will be free to install whichever browser, or browsers, they want, whether IE8 or a rival such as Mozilla's Firefox or Google's Chrome.

"Microsoft told me that they're not going to offer compensation to OEMs," said Rosoff, talking about the practice of software vendors paying for placement on new machines. "If they did, that might run them into antitrust hot water. So OEMs can now shop that space around. This is a revenue opportunity for the OEMs," Rosoff continued, especially if the computer maker sells placement for just a single browser on its machines.

Google is the most likely browser maker to offer computer makers pay-for-placement, said Rosoff. "That's the interesting question. What's Google going to do here?" he said.

Last week, Microsoft said that it would remove IE8 from Windows 7 for the European market, a move it made to make the OS's Oct. 22 ship date in light of a looming decision by regulators to force the company to make it easier for users to pick other browsers.

"What Microsoft and the OEMs don't want is a 'ballot screen,'" said Rosoff, referring to the solution that most believe the European Commission will force on Microsoft. Such a ballot screen would offer multiple browsers, appear the first time a user tries to connect to the Internet on a new PC and then either download or install from the hard drive the selected browser(s).

Dubbed "must-carry" by some, including Microsoft, the ballot screen approach could be a support nightmare for Microsoft and its OEM partners. "If that browser you picked doesn't work, you're going to call the OEM for help," said Rosoff. "That would put Microsoft in the position that they have to coordinate with OEMs and other browser makers who would provide the actual support.

"Microsoft and the OEMs would look at that as a big burden," said Rosoff. "That's why Microsoft hopes that [it's move last week] satisfies the EU."

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Gregg Keizer

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