Facing possible regulatory action in Europe, Microsoft has begun quietly testing a secret new Windows 7 feature: The ability for end users to completely remove Internet Explorer (IE) 8 from the OS. Microsoft has staunchly defended its right to bundle IE with Windows over the years, and charges that the bundling was illegal were thrown out in its previous US antitrust case. But with mounting pressure, and an array of browser competitors joining the current EU investigation, Microsoft appears to have found away to silence all complaints. It will simply let users remove IE 8.
At least that's one possibility. Microsoft could simply be testing the removal functionality in interim Windows 7 pre-release builds in order to make sure it's ready in the future if the EU were to rule against it. Such functionality might only find its way into versions of Windows 7 that are sold in Europe, for example.
While we're speculating, it's worth wondering about Microsoft's previous claims that IE was so deeply integrated into Windows that removing it would render the OS unusable. In fact, Microsoft executives provided a demonstration of this non-working Windows version during the US antitrust trial several years ago.
Of course, a lot has changed since then. Beginning with Windows Vista, Microsoft rearchitected its core desktop OS to be more componentized. In such a system, dependencies between different OS components are minimized, making it easier for Microsoft, its partners, and, ultimately, its customers to add and remove the features they want. It's possible that, with Windows 7, removing IE is as technically simple as removing any other Windows feature.
Regardless of the motives or technical aspects of this change, Microsoft's testing of such a feature is telling: The company is getting ready to meet a potential EU legal setback in such a way that would render the ruling immediately moot. That's just smart business.