Microsoft lets you remove IE from Windows 7

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

To the surprise of many, Microsoft seems to have built into the forthcoming Windows 7 a way to completely disable Internet Explorer, if you know the trick.

Meanwhile, in response to complaints from the European Commission, the software giant is also proposing to ship within the Continent a version of Windows 7 without IE, although Microsoft’s plan would allow PC makers themselves to freely install Redmond’s browser.

IE integration and disintegration with Windows

To understand where the browserless version of Windows is heading, it helps to remember where it’s been. Internet Explorer has had a long and rocky relationship with Windows. Really. In fact, the first version of IE didn’t ship with Windows; it was part of the Microsoft Plus! Pack, a separately installed, extra-cost add-on for Windows 95.

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IE gradually wended its way into the heart and soul of Windows, but the process took several years. Few people seem to remember that the Quick Launch toolbar, for example, started out as a feature of Internet Explorer 4, not Windows itself.

By the time Windows 98 hit the streets, IE had become so inextricably woven into the OS that security holes in the browser became security holes in Windows itself: your PC could get infected by an IE vulnerability even if IE wasn’t running.

Just as Microsoft once spent years weaving IE into the fabric of Windows, the company has more recently spent years tearing the infectious beast out. In theory, Windows Vista allows you to “disable” Internet Explorer:
  • Step 1. Click Start, Default Programs;
  • Step 2. Choose Set program access and computer defaults;
  • Step 3. Choose Custom;
  • Step 4. Uncheck Enable access to this program in IE’s listing and click OK. (See Figure 1.)
Disable internet explorer in vista
Figure 1. Unchecking “Enable access to this program” in Vista’s Set Program Access and Computer Defaults dialog doesn’t really disable IE.

Unfortunately, the setting’s a canard: the disabled IE may not show up on any menus, but parts of IE continue to run in Vista no matter how you set these options. You can lock down the remaining pieces of IE using the techniques WS editorial director Brian Livingston described in his October 26, 2006, Top Story, but vestiges of IE lurk in Vista or Windows XP, no matter how hard you try to remove them.

On the other hand, Windows 7 really does let you disable IE and squash it like a miserable bug:
  • Step 1. Click Start, type windows features, and press Enter;
  • Step 2. Uncheck Internet Explorer 8;
  • Step 3. When Windows 7 warns you that turning off IE 8 may lead to the heartbreak of psoriasis and interminable halitosis, click Yes and then OK. (See Figure 2.)
  • Disable internet explorer in windows 7
    Figure 2. Unchecking this option in Win7’s Windows Features settings really does banish IE.

    When IE 8 is allowed to run normally (when the Internet Explorer 8 option in the Windows Features dialog box shown in Figure 2 is checked), Windows 7 loads — or at least stages — some parts of IE 8 every time it starts. But if you uncheck that box, Windows 7 doesn’t retrieve or load any of the parts of IE 8 when it starts, not even the IE icon on the desktop or the program’s entry in the Start menu. Windows 7 also skips retrieving, loading, or staging any IE 8 programs.

    Microsoft’s proposed Windows 7 E is a lot like the standard version with IE 8 disabled in the Windows Features dialog. However, the Win7 E distribution DVD doesn’t include the IE 8 bits.

    The fact that Microsoft is willing to offer this approach to the EC means that the company executives are absolutely, utterly confident that they have removed every last piece of IE from the core Windows 7 code. If there were any lingering doubts, Microsoft wouldn’t have made the boast … er, offer to remove IE from Windows 7 E.

    That’s good news for Windows 7 users everywhere, both within and outside Europe: We can finally just click a single box and feel confident that we’ve banished IE for good.

    Microsoft tap-dances its way around Europe

    Those of you who’ve followed the Windows 7 test versions know that the Windows 7 beta didn’t allow IE 8 to be disabled via the Windows Features settings. Instead, the disable-IE option first appeared as something of a surprise in the Windows 7 Release Candidate months later. Clearly, Microsoft has been working at yanking IE out of the heart of Windows for some time. Just as clearly, Microsoft brass weren’t ready to spill the beans about the new IE 8-less capability until the last minute.

    Many people were surprised by Microsoft’s announcement that it would ship all European copies of Windows with no Web browser at all. I found it a fascinating Microsoft vs. European Commission salvo, sure to draw cries of alarm from all sides.

    By yanking out IE, then allowing PC manufacturers to add IE back, Microsoft effectively absolves itself of any monopolistic wrongdoing and puts the monkey on the back of PC vendors. Who’s going to sue a hardware maker for abusive software-distribution practices? As a bit o’ lagniappe, Microsoft gets to flip the bird at the EC. For Microsoft, it’s a win-win-Win7 situation.

    More Win7/IE machinations expected this summer

    At this point, we have an aw-shucks proposition from Microsoft countering a totally unworkable solution from the EC. How can you install an alternative browser into Win7 if no way to surf the Web is installed to begin with? At this point, talk of pick-your-browser menus is just that — talk.

    The EC sits in the uncomfortable position of accusing Microsoft of anticompetitive behavior by not including its anticompetitive product in Windows. Sometimes it’s hard to believe we haven’t already fallen down the rabbit hole.

    No matter how this plays out, all of us — inside and outside Europe — can feel confident that Microsoft really has enabled us to yank Internet Explorer out of Windows 7. The company wouldn’t make a high-stakes gamble with Windows 7 unless it were sure that, technically, the IE-less state could stand intense EC scrutiny.

    There are other dimensions to this drama. Keep in mind that everything Opera is currently doing in Europe to protest the bundling of IE with Windows benefits Google. Strategically, what we’re seeing right now isn’t a fight between IE and Firefox or Opera. It’s a battle between Microsoft and Google.

    This much is sure: Lots and lots of lawyers are going to make lots and lots of money off this one.

    Woody Leonhard‘s latest books — Windows Vista All-In-One Desk Reference For Dummies and Windows Vista Timesaving Techniques For Dummies — explore what you need to know about Vista in a way that won’t put you to sleep. He and Ed Bott also wrote the encyclopedic Special Edition Using Office 2007.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2009-06-18:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.