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Updated Microsoft's approach to packaging of its signature desktop operating system couldn't be much more different than Apple's.

Instead of a single, packaged Windows 7, the new operating system - like Windows before it - will see Microsoft segment like crazy with six editions.

Unless you're in Europe, in which case you're going to get 12 - none of which will feature its browser, Internet Explorer. That means, globally, there will be at least 18 different packages of Windows 7.

Microsoft said Wednesday it's going to ship versions of Windows 7 in Europe minus IE 8 to stay on the right side of European Union (EU) competition law. Those six versions will be available alongside six previously announced SKUs that will come with IE 8 and will be sold in the US.

These 12 Windows 7 packages will ship at the same time as a further six versions of Windows 7 that are destined for Europe - Windows 7 N, an edition without Windows Media Player that will now also be missing IE.

Windows N was introduced with Windows XP and was Microsoft's previous attempt to comply with EU competition law after it was found to have abused its market position and to have hurt media-player competitors by including Media Player with Windows.

Microsoft vice president and deputy general counsel Dave Heiner blogged Wednesday that the E option was not Microsoft's preferred course of action but called it the "best path given the ongoing legal case in Europe.

"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," he wrote. Heiner said OEMs can any install any browser they want to on their Windows 7 machines.

Whether Opera Software, which led the charge on IE bundling in Europe, and Mozilla and Google will buy this is hard to see. Microsoft's decision comes ahead of any final EU ruling on its investigation into Microsoft.

Heiner correctly noted other alternatives have been discussed inside the EU, ideas that include forcing Microsoft to ship rival browsers with IE inside Windows and the potential for Microsoft to make other browsers available for download through its update service.

Heiner is right to be cautious. Microsoft's tactic in these matters is to ship product before the legal machinery makes its decision, making the situation a fait accompli. Indeed, Microsoft's already informed OEMs of its plans just as they start preparing for Windows 7's October 22 launch.

But product segmentation on Windows 7 is likely to do little to address rivals' real concerns. With 12 products in Europe and another six in the US, Microsoft will essentially offer the prospect of choice safe in the knowledge that most OEMs will take the option that delivers IE.

The OEMs are already proving themselves unable to break the produce-development mold when it comes to putting Linux or Windows on netbooks, with most big names simply opting for the operating system they and customers have more experience with. The OEMs are unlikely to go to the added expense of researching the browser market themselves.

Heiner has promised OEMs Microsoft will offer IE: "Separately and on an easy-to-install basis to both computer manufacturers and users."

Inertia will not be challenged by Microsoft either. The majority of Microsoft's Windows 7 marketing and channel push will, naturally, be behind the full-featured products that show off all Microsoft's latest technologies rather than some bastard, runt E or N editions.

Browser rivals are unlikely to favor this approach and will see it as fairer that their software is included with the SKU that OEMs pick and addresses the mass market, not the E or N editions with bits missing.

And why wouldn't they? It's not Windows XP N that ships on most PCs in Europe that run Windows. It's Windows XP that comes with Media Player.

Rivals who brought the case out of a sense of justice will also likely be chafing at a Microsoft move that could leave them looking like the people whose actions gave Microsoft no option but to foist a runt version of Windows 7 on European users.®

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

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