A single check box deep in the guts of the next version of Windows is giving Microsoft watchers a peek at how the software maker plans to keep European anti-trust regulators from marring a crucial software launch.
Windows 7, the successor to the much-maligned Vista, isn't expected to reach consumers until next year, but more than a million people are already testing early versions. A pair of bloggers tinkering with settings stumbled upon one they hadn't seen before: The ability to "turn off" Microsoft's own internet explorer browser.
Microsoft lost a long-running battle with EU anti-trust regulators in 2007 over the way it bundled media player software into the Windows operating system. The dust had barely settled when a similar claim was filed, this time over internet explorer's place inside Windows. Opera Software ASA, a Norwegian competitor, claimed the practice gives Microsoft's browser an unfair advantage.
In a preliminary decision in January, the EU agreed. Since then, makers of open-source browser Firefox and Google, which entered the browser market six months ago, have offered to provide more evidence that Microsoft is stifling competition.
In the media player dispute, the EU heavily fined Microsoft and forced it to sell a version of Windows without the offending program installed. This time, Microsoft appears to be offering the check-box solution as a way to head off a similar ending.
The company declined to comment on the connection between the check boxes and the EU's preliminary decision. But in a recent quarterly filing, it said the European Commission may order PC makers to instal multiple browsers on new PCs and force Microsoft to disable parts of its own internet explorer if people chose a competing browser.
The check boxes, which were described on Microsoft enthusiast blogs http://www.aeroxp.org and http://www.chris123nt.com, also give Windows 7 users a way to disable media player and hard-drive search programs, among others, both of which have drawn scrutiny from regulators.
After Windows Vista landed with a thud, Microsoft needs a hit, said Michael Cherry, an analyst for the research group Directions on Microsoft. Beyond appeasing the EU, he said he didn't see much use for the internet explorer check box.