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Windows 7 to ship without IE browser in Europe

San Francisco — Microsoft has said regulatory wrangling has prompted it to strip Internet Explorer Web browsers from copies of its Windows 7 operating system to be sold in Europe.

The US software giant said Thursday it still plans to release the next generation of its ubiquitous operating system worldwide on October 22, but customers in Europe will have to install Web browsers of their choice as the company seeks to skirt antitrust concerns.

"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 statement.

"Given the pending legal proceeding, we’ve decided that instead of including Internet Explorer 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 browsers in new machines running on the company’s new operating system, according to Heiner.

"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 European Union against accusations of unfairly crushing rivals in the Web browser market.

The European Commission (EC), 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 EC could slap the company with huge new fines and order it to change its ways.

The commission on Thursday expressed scepticism over Microsoft’s move and said it will decide soon whether the software powerhouse has abused its dominant position in the market and what fixes 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," the EC said in a statement.

The commission said that if Microsoft’s behaviour was found to be abusive it would have to evaluate whether the company’s change is "sufficient to create genuine consumer choice on the web browser market."

The commission accuses Microsoft of crushing rivals by bundling IE into its Windows personal computer operating system, giving the program an unfair advantage over competitors’ browsers.

The dispute goes back years. In a landmark antitrust case in 2004, the EC found that Microsoft had abused its dominant position and slapped a record 497-million-euro (690-million-dollar) fine on the company. In 2007, a European court upheld the verdict and the fine.

Heiner said Microsoft expects that stripping IE from Windows 7 will bolster its argument that it is 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.

But the chief complainant in the European case against Microsoft, Opera Software, said the move to strip IE out of Windows 7 in Europe was a Microsoft reaction "under pressure" that fell well short of the rival’s expectations.

"I don’t believe this is going to restore competition in the marketplace," Opera chief technology officer Hakon Wium Lie told online tech publication CNET.

Lie said he wants users to be given a choice of different browsers they could download the first time they access the Internet.

Microsoft appears to want to ease the adoption of Windows 7, according to analyst Michael Cherry of Directions On Microsoft, a private firm that tracks the Redmond, Washington colossus.

The system’s predecessor, Vista, has been criticized and shunned by many computer users. Microsoft wants Windows 7 to be embraced worldwide.

Shipping Windows 7 without IE frees computer manufacturers to make deals to pre-install other browsers such as Google’s Chrome.

Lie said Opera could theoretically strike a deal with PC makers to have their browser pre-installed on computers, but that only US giant Google would have pockets deep enough for such a move.

Glenn Chapman/AFP/Expatica