Microsoft on Thursday said regulatory wrangling has prompted it to strip Internet Explorer (IE) Web browsers from copies of its Windows 7 operating system to be sold in Europe.
The US software giant said it still planned to release its next-generation operating system worldwide on Oct. 22, but that customers in Europe would have to install Web browsers of their choice.
“We’re committed to making Windows 7 available in Europe at the same time that it launches in the rest of the world, but we also must comply with European competition law as we launch the product,” Microsoft deputy general counsel Dave Heiner said in a written release. “Given the pending legal proceeding, we’ve decided that instead of including IE in Windows 7 in Europe, we will offer it separately and on an easy-to-install basis to both computer manufacturers and users.”
Microsoft announced the development this week so computer makers can adapt to installing Web browsers in new machines running on the US software giant’s new operating system, Heiner said.
“We’re committed to launching Windows 7 on time in Europe, so we need to address the legal realities in Europe, including the risk of large fines,” Heiner said. “We believe that this new approach, while not our first choice, is the best path forward given the ongoing legal case in Europe.”
Microsoft is defending itself in the EU against accusations of unfairly crushing rivals in the Web browser market.
The European Commission, Europe’s top competition watchdog, opened a new front in its epic antitrust battle with Microsoft in January, hitting the company with fresh charges of unfairly squashing competition.
Microsoft is to defend itself at a hearing, which companies are allowed to do under EU antitrust rules.
If Microsoft fails to beat back the charges, the commission could slap the company with huge new fines and order it to change its ways.
The commission on Thursday expressed skepticism over the Microsoft move and said it would decide soon whether it believes the software powerhouse has abused its dominant position in the market and what remedies are needed.
“In terms of potential remedies, if the Commission were to find that Microsoft had committed an abuse, the Commission has suggested that consumers should be offered a choice of browser not that Windows should be supplied without a browser at all,” it said in a statement.
But it said Microsoft’s approach of offering the program to computer manufacturers “may potentially be more positive.”
However, the commission said if Microsoft’s behavior was found to be abusive that it would have to evaluate whether the change was “sufficient to create genuine consumer choice on the Web browser market.”
“It would also have to consider whether this initial step of technical separation of IE from Windows could be negated by other actions by Microsoft,” the commission said.
The commission accuses Microsoft of crushing rivals by bundling IE into its ubiquitous Windows personal computer operating system, giving the program an unfair advantage over competitors’ browsers.
Heiner said Microsoft expected that stripping the browser from Windows 7 would bolster its position that it was not bundling software in order to suffocate competition.
“We know we need to have a clear plan in place to address the ‘bundling’ issue in Europe because, at the end of the day, the obligation to comply with European competition law belongs to Microsoft alone,” Heiner said.
Microsoft appears to be striving to clear away obstacles to adoption of Windows 7, said analyst Michael Cherry of Directions On Microsoft, a private firm that tracks the Redmond, Washington-based colossus.
The operating system’s predecessor, Vista, has gotten ongoing criticism and been shunned by many computer users. Microsoft wants Windows 7 to be embraced worldwide.
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