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The story actually broke a little over a week ago. Some, perhaps official, and some, perhaps torrent, users of Windows 7 version 7048 discovered that Internet Explorer 8 could be "turned off" under Control Panel → Program and Features → Turn Windows Features on or off. At the time, it wasn't known if this was just a fluke or an intended change. However, Microsoft came clean in the Engineering Windows 7 blog last Friday. A post by Documents and Printing program manager Jack Mayo confirmed that, yes, Internet Explorer and a number of other features can be turned off in Windows 7.
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The blogosphere has zoomed right in on the implications of being able to turn off Internet Explorer and whether this will satisfy the EU antitrust watchdogs in Brussels, Belgium. The blog post, however, made clear that "turn off" doesn't mean uninstall or delete. Mr. Mayo wrote:
If a feature is deselected, it is not available for use. This means the files (binaries and data) are not loaded by the operating system (for security-conscious customers) and not available to users on the computer... These same files are staged so that the features can easily be added back to the running OS without additional media. This staging is important feedback we have received from customers who definitely do not like to dig up the installation DVD.
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Users of the 7048 build claim that removing Internet Explorer does not completely uninstall the application. It deletes the iexplore.exec file, but all related files are left behind. In other words, not much hard drive space is recovered in this staging scheme. Internet Explorer is removed from the Windows Start menu, however, and is not accessible unless it's manually re-enabled.
Other features that can be turned off include Windows Gadget Platform (Windows 7 replacement for Vista's SideBar) services, Windows Media Center and Media Player, Windows DVD Maker, Windows Search, Fax and Scan, XPS viewer/printer services, and handwriting recognition.
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We can logically suspect that not all parts of a disabled application will be removed because of the complex dependencies involved. For example, Vista requires Internet Explorer to run Windows Update, even though it appears to be a separate application. Will Windows 7 be different in this area? Will these changes be enough to satisfy the EU?
It's unclear whether Microsoft will extend this ability to the Windows 7 Group Policy Editor. Since Microsoft seems to be making a concerted push for Windows 7 in the office, having a way to administer a few hundred PCs to remove unwanted features would be highly desirable. Then again, it's likely that enterprise customers will be using a custom image of Windows 7 on their machines. About this, Mayo writes "Group policy permits control of this user interface and the setup and imaging tools allow the creation and imaging of Windows however you prefer."
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We'll learn more when the RC version arrives, but being able to "turn off" major features is a step in the right direction for Windows 7. Now I'd like to be able to turn off the fairly useless small applications. I'm still no fan of the ribbon in Word 2007, and having a ribbon in paint.exe is just, well, silly. Why do we need Paint anyway? Why do we need accessibility options if we have no accessibility problems? Give us an inch, Microsoft, and we'll happily ask for a mile.