After months of wrestling with European antitrust regulators, Microsoft has decided to issue the same version of Windows 7 in the European Union as in the rest of the world.
Previously, Microsoft had intended to ship Windows 7 E, a separate EU version of its upcoming operating system that would have lacked Internet Explorer 8, in an attempt to appease EU regulators who were arguing that the inclusion of the browser in the operating system violates antitrust laws. The European version of Windows 7 would have been otherwise completely identical to the one released worldwide and would have rolled out on Oct. 22 with the other versions.
European manufacturers would have had to option of preinstalling Internet Explorer 8 on machines before shipment, however, meaning that many users would have never noticed the difference. And a potential snag existed for users seeking to upgrade an existing system, as changing over to Windows 7 E from Windows Vista would have left them browserless when their Vista copy of Internet Explorer was wiped from the drive.
According to Microsoft, however, Windows 7 E has been eliminated in favor of a new approach.
"We have now decided to alter that launch plan," Dave Heiner, vice president and deputy general counsel for Microsoft, wrote in a statement. "In the wake of last week's developments, as well as continuing feedback on Windows 7 E that we have received from computer manufacturers and other business partners, I'm pleased to report that we will ship the same version of Windows 7 in Europe in October that we will ship in the rest of the world."
Customers who purchase Windows 7 in the "European Economic Area" will be presented with a "ballot screen" that allows them to choose an alternate Web browser such as Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome. In the sample screen provided by Microsoft, the rival browsers are given an equal amount of space, with a clickable "Tell me more" option beneath the logo for each.
"This consumer ballot screen may result in some users switching from IE to other browsers," Heiner wrote. "It is unlikely to lead to any users switching to IE, since the screen will not be presented to Windows users whose default is Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera or any other browser."
Heiner cautioned, however, that the battle could be far from over.
"We recognize that there are still several steps ahead in the commission's review of our proposal and that we are not done," he said. "We've been open both with the commission and with our customers and partners that if the ballot-screen proposal is not accepted for some reason, then we will have to consider alternative paths, including the reintroduction of a Windows 7 E version in Europe."
Such a move would likely irritate both manufacturers and Microsoft's partners. Those groups' worries that Windows 7 E could cause consumer confusion are what led Microsoft to kill that version of the operating system, according to Heiner.
Microsoft has been anxious to settle its long-running antitrust issues with the European Union. In July, a report from Bloomberg suggested that Microsoft was in talks to wrap up the investigations by the time EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes steps down from office at the end of 2009.
Of the two antitrust cases in question, the first involves the installation of Internet Explorer in Windows, while the second deals with the ability of Microsoft Word and Excel to successfully interact with other applications. Microsoft has previously been fined over 1.68 billion euros for antitrust violations.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has met with Kroes to iron out the issues between the EU and the software giant, but despite years of talks there continue to be a few snags. With its latest move, Microsoft seems to be making a large bet that the traditionally prickly Commission will play to its tune.