Analysis: With Antitrust Decree Gone, Microsoft Again Tying Browser Tightly To Windows

The final remnants of that decree lapsed earlier this year, and now Microsoft is wasting little time in returning to its past strategy: A pre-release version of Windows 8 shows an OS that is deeply intertwined with Internet Explorer 10, with it impossible to uninstall the browser from the OS at this point in Microsoft’s development process.

Microsoft’s unveiling of the Windows 8 Developer Preview, which includes its next generation browser, Internet Explorer 10, initially had most observers focusing on changes made to the traditional Windows user interface and support for a new “Metro” style of applications that would provide much the same user experience on PCs or mobile tablets.

In prior versions of Internet Explorer, including versions 8 and 9, Microsoft provided instructions for uninstalling the browser from the Windows PC operating system.

Instead, Microsoft has provided a method for “turning on” or “turning off” some Windows 8 features, including the browser. This is almost identical to the process in Microsoft’s Windows Server 2008 for turning on and off several features and functions, including its Hyper-V virtualization software.

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But turning off IE 10 doesn’t appear to remove it completely from Windows 8.

For example, before we turned off IE 10, we changed the default privacy setting from allowing some cookies to completely blocking all cookies. We then turned the browser off, rebooted, and IE 10 appeared to have completely disappeared from the PC. But when we went back into the settings, turned IE 10 back on, and rebooted again, the browser was back -- but with our customized settings, not the default. That would appear to indicate that Microsoft doesn’t really remove the browser entirely, but rather just hides it – with customized settings and all.

The ability to turn Internet Explorer “on or off” on a Windows PC is not new. Microsoft introduced this capability when it rolled out Windows 7 in conjunction with IE 8. However, Microsoft also provided instructions for uninstalling Internet Explorer 8 and Internet Explorer 9 from Windows PCs. With Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10, it apparently does not as of now.

Asked whether it is possible to uninstall IE 10 from Windows 8, a Microsoft spokeswoman referred to previously published information from the company on IE 10 and Windows 8, in addition to the company’s official blog for IE. None appear to provide information on how to completely uninstall IE 10.

“We have nothing more to share about IE10 at this time beyond what in the guides and the IE Blog,” the spokeswoman said via e-mail.

To say market conditions have changed since 2001, when Microsoft entered into the consent decree, and now, would be the king of understatements. Then, Microsoft was accused of bundling its browser directly with the OS in a manner that was anticompetitive and damaging to its then-rival, Netscape -- a publicly traded company that produced the Navigator browser.

Today, Netscape no longer exists as a stand-alone company and its co-founder, Marc Andreessen, is a board member of Hewlett-Packard, a strategic Microsoft partner. Google, a top Microsoft competitor today, has gone from a search engine company at that time to one that not only makes a browser, but makes a browser that’s also an operating system (the Chrome OS.) And both Google and another rival, Apple, have essentially passed Microsoft like it was stalled in the explosive market for smart phones, tablets and app ecosystems.

Windows 8 and IE 10 are critical to Microsoft’s effort to battle back against Apple, Google and others. The Metro interface, which relies on IE 10, is aimed at permitting a new generation of application software development for the Windows platform -- one that leverages both the touch-screen capability of Windows 8 and an interface that is friendly not just for the PC but for the tablet platform as well. It’s worth noting that when you “turn off” IE 10 in the Windows 8 Developer Preview, you also turn off the Metro interface. No IE 10, no Metro apps -- at least not at this stage of the development process.

The official launch of both Windows 8 and IE 10 could be as much as a year away -- an eternity in technology. But after more than 10 eternities under the U.S. antitrust consent decree, Microsoft’s strategy appears to be back to where it was.