Note: On July 30, 2009, Microsoft revealed that it would no longer foist the Windows 7 E Editions on Europe. This information is here for historical purposes only. --Paul
It may be a while before we know whether Microsoft's decision to offer special "E" versions of Windows 7 in Europe--that is, versions of Windows 7 that do not include Internet Explorer--is crazy like a fox or just plain crazy. But there's little doubt that the software giant's answer to the increasingly irrational antitrust regulators in the EU is inventive. Rather than kowtow to the EU's demands that it bundle competing web browsers in Windows 7 via a so-called ballot screen, Microsoft simply removed the source of the problem. In the Windows 7 E Editions, which will be provided to all of its customers in the EU, Internet Explorer simply isn't included. And you can't add it back via Programs and Features as you can in versions of Windows 7 that will be sold elsewhere around the world.
The EU and toadying web browser makers like Opera reacted with outrage. But the real question here, assuming that Microsoft is able to sell these products as expected in the EU, is how this decision will affect users. The company provided one clue when it announced Windows 7 retail pricing recently (read my exhaustive overview for details): Until it can work out the details, people in the EU who purchase Windows 7 will get only the Full version, and not the Upgrade version, but they will acquire this product at the Upgrade prices. The reason is simple: Microsoft has yet to figure out a way to upgrade a copy of Windows Vista with IE 7 or 8 installed to a copy of Windows 7 in which IE cannot exist. They say they expect to have a solution by the end of the year.
From a usage perspective, of course, people are wondering how someone with Windows 7 E will even get online, since there's no web browser preinstalled. Even those who prefer Firefox or another browser typically boot up IE once in order to download their browser of choice. Such concerns are, however, overblown. Since about 95 percent of Windows customers acquire Windows with a new PC, most will never have to concern themselves with such a problem: The PC makers will of course bundle one or more browsers with each machine they sell. (In fact, they could choose to include IE if they'd prefer.) Those stuck with a Windows 7 E retail version will have to download a browser to a USB key or other storage device before installing the OS. (Hopefully, Microsoft includes an EU complaint form in the box so they can let their government know that meddling on behalf of corporations doesn't always benefit consumers. Just a thought.)
Here are some shots of Windows 7 E, in its current, pre-release form. There's some E-specific branding and no obvious way to install a browser, let alone do much else.