A few weeks ago, Microsoft announced that Windows 7 would not ship with Internet Explorer 8 within the European Union. This is to comply with EU demands following the anti-trust case some time back. On the immediate face of this seem like good news for users of other browsers -- but is it?
How much will actually change?
Microsoft have admitted that OEMs will be able to install a browser of their choice before shipping the PC. In practice this is likely to mean very few PCs will not end up with IE on them as I'd imagine Microsoft are banking on the fact that most OEMs will install IE8 anyway. They'll probably claim that it's what their customers demand. That's one of those oft-made claims along the lines of "everybody does it" where the claimant has not actually asked even a subset of the amount of people they refer to. In addition if you consider Microsoft's relationship with OEMs, it's not a huge jump to guess that some kind of financial pressure could be placed upon the OEM to ensure they deliver with IE anyway.
Does this mean we'll see Windows 7 boxes shiped with Firefox?
While I'd like to see a choice of browser from OEMs, sadly I just can't imagine it being a reality
In theory it's possible, in practice I doubt this will happen. I just can't see OEMs bothering with it really. It would be nice to see OEMs offering their customers the choice of browser that is installed but heck - most of them still won't give us a choice of OS or even the choice not to have a PC delivered half-full of trial-versions, limited editions and other such "bonus" software. I remember seeing a script written to remove that kind of stuff from standard Dell PCs a while back. It was aptly-named "de-crapify". So while I'd like to see a choice of browser, sadly I just can't imagine it being a reality.
So this isn't really about choice then?
No it's not. Sorry to sound so pessimistic but nothing much will change; to be honest even if it did, we wouldn't suddenly see millions more Firefox users. Even if we did, I somehow doubt we'd have much chance of seeing those users migrate to other free software. I'd like it to change of course. I'd like OEMs to give customers not only options to choose the hardware but also the software on the PC they're paying for. If you can choose the amount of RAM, CPU and graphics adaptor from the OEMs given range, why can't you choose which browser or - woe-betide - OS goes on it? I'm aware that some OEMs are offering OS choices but let's be honest, they don't make it easy for us do they? Must try harder -- as my school reports seemed to always say.
There must be some good news?
There is but only if we stop looking at OEM PC shipments as a mark of success. One of the main supporters of the EU anti-trust case was -- unsurprisingly -- Opera. However, they feel this unbundling move isn't enough. To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies: well they wouldn't would they? Opera would prefer consumers are given a choice of browser to install when they first boot their PC. This is -- quite frankly -- unworkable as the list of browsers would become unwieldy and confusing and at that stage all the user will want to do is turn on their shiny new kit and start playing with it.
But giving some choice could be a nice side-effect of all this. OEMs could offer alternative browsers and they would likely include Firefox. If that proved a success then we could see other software alternatives being offered. Eventually we could end up with the scenario I describe above: consumers specifying not only the hardware but the software that comes with their OEM PC. Consider this: you browse an OEM website, make your hardware choices as you do now and then choose a software "pack" to be installed on your new PC as it is built. One contains Windows/MS Office/IE8|Chrome|Opera and adds another £70 to the price (allowing for OEM discounts here). Another offers Windows/OpenOffice.org/Firefox for say £50 and a third offers Ubuntu or Fedora (to suggest but two) which already come with office software and a browser for no additional cost.
I know I've always said price is not the best argument, but in that situation I think a good deal of people would choose one of the options that contain free software. The trouble is, Microsoft know that and hence we come back to the point about OEMs under indirect pressure to install IE8 before shipping. Still we can hope and of course put pressure on our OEMs.
* I'm not affiliated with Efficient - I just wanted to point out that there OEMs installing GNU/Linux. Please feel free to add others as comments here but they must offer free software based OEM PCs. Adverts for proprietary-only suppliers will be removed.