Microsoft late last week admitted that it 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 it 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, Internet Explorer 8, Windows Search, Handwriting Recognition, Windows Gadget Platform, Fax and Scan, and the XPS Viewer and related services.
That's 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 like IE 8 and Windows Media Player will be extended to businesses via the usual channels. More specifically, you will be able to create Windows 7 install images using Microsoft's existing deployment tools that include (or don't include) any of the features that can 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 do not include any Windows Media components, you can do so, and then ensure that your users can't add back those features later.
The Windows Features applet now includes a number of new choices.
There are good reasons to think about removing as many features as is feasible in your environment because doing so will reduce the OS attack surface and reduce the number of future hot-fixes and other updates that you will need to apply. Office workers may have valid business reasons for needing Windows Media Player, perhaps. But they most likely do not need Media Center, for example.
Aside from this removal capability, another obvious question involves how removing these features may impact 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 like 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 is not just doing the right thing, it's doing the right thing in the right way. And that's exactly the kind of clarity the company promised but did not deliver with Windows Vista. It's nice to see them get it right every once in a while.
An edited version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul