Late last week, Microsoft admitted that the company will allow end users to remove Internet Explorer (IE) 8 from Windows 7, a decision that should forestall any pending antitrust charges in Europe and provide users around the world with a way to ensure that their browser of choice is the one used in all circumstances. (Currently, non-IE users still see IE pop up from time to time in response to Internet-related tasks from other applications.) But the Microsoft decision goes far beyond IE: In addition to the browser, Microsoft has identified several other OS components, or features, that the company will allow users to remove in Windows 7, in addition to what was previously available in Windows Vista. These include Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center, Windows DVD Maker, Windows Search, Handwriting Recognition, Windows Gadget Platform, Fax and Scan, and the XPS Viewer and related services.
This news is fantastic from a choice perspective. But Microsoft's announcement was purely focused on the end user and didn't mention businesses or managed environments at all. Surely this functionality will be made available to Microsoft's biggest customer group as well, right?
Yes. As it turns out, the ability to remove Windows features such as IE 8 and Windows Media Player will be extended to businesses via the usual channels. More specifically, you'll be able to create Windows 7 installation images using Microsoft's existing deployment tools that include (or don't include) any of the features that can be added or removed via the end user Windows Features applet. You can also use Group Policy to control which of these features are available to users. So if you want to deploy versions of Windows 7 that don't include any Windows Media components, you can do so, and then ensure that your users can't add those features back in later.
There are good reasons to think about removing as many features as is feasible in your environment, because doing so will decrease the OS attack surface and reduce the number of future hotfixes and other updates you'll need to apply. Office workers might have valid business reasons for needing Windows Media Player--but they most likely don't need Media Center, for example.
Aside from this removal capability, another obvious question involves how removing these features might affect the performance or usage of the OS. Microsoft has done a lot of work, beginning with Windows Vista, to componentize Windows, removing inter-component code dependencies where possible. This componentization effort has allowed the company to make more features removable in Windows 7, but we should be clear about what this means. When you remove a feature like IE 8, what you're removing is the end user application, not many of the underlying software APIs, which are of course used throughout the system for various reasons. This will ensure software compatibility--that is, third-party applications that rely on lower-level technologies such as MSHTML compatibility and Winsock will continue to work after IE 8 is removed--and provide a smoother experience for users and support staff.
Put simply, Microsoft isn't just doing the right thing, the company is doing the right thing in the right way. And that's exactly the kind of clarity the company promised but didn't deliver with Windows Vista. It's nice to see them get it right every once in a while