Microsoft has announced that it will meet the unrealistic conditions of antitrust regulations in the European Union (EU) by releasing special "E" editions of Windows 7 in EU localities that won't include the Internet Explorer (IE) 8 browser. The decision was made now so that the software giant has time to make the changes and meet its self-imposed October 22 Windows 7 launch date.

"We're committed to making Windows 7 available in Europe at the same time it launches in the rest of the world, but we also must comply with European competition law as we launch Windows 7," Microsoft Director of Public Affairs Kevin Kutz told me. "We have therefore decided that instead of including Internet Explorer in Windows 7 in Europe, we will offer it separately and on an easy-to-install basis to both computer manufacturers and users."

Customers in Europe will receive special Windows 7 "E" editions in which the IE browser has been removed and can't be added back using the usual Windows Features control panel. Microsoft will make IE 8 available to those customers, optionally, via a so-called "IE 8 Pack" that will be acquired "via CD, FTP, and retail channels." The "E" editions of Windows 7 will otherwise mirror the normal product editions, and as with other nationalities, they will be offered in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. (The version of Windows 7 Home Premium that's sold in Europe will be called Windows 7 Home Premium E, for example.)

PC makers, as always, can add whatever browsers they like to the machines they sell. So, if you were to buy a Windows 7-based PC in Europe next year, it would most likely come with Firefox or some other browser. It could even come with IE 8 if the PC maker decides to include the IE 8 Pack as well.

"We believe that this new approach, while not our first choice, is the best path forward given the ongoing legal case in Europe," Microsoft Vice President Dave Heiner explained in a blog posting. "It will address the bundling claim while providing European consumers with access to the full range of Windows 7 benefits that will be available in the rest of the world."

It also puts Microsoft in the awkward position of punishing some customers in Europe for the EU's actions against the company. But before this gets too overblown, let's all remember that the vast majority of Windows sales to consumers come via PC makers, and those PC makers will always bundle a browser of some kind with their machines. So false indignation aside, the actual impact to consumers in the EU will be minimal.