The claim, made by Princeton University assistant professor of computer science Edward Felten in written testimony unsealed today, contradicts a key legal defense Microsoft has made repeatedly in response to legal actions filed by the government.
The Justice Department (DOJ) and 19 states allege that Microsoft viewed Netscape Communications' Navigator browser as a threat to Windows, the operating system that is used on some 90 percent of personal computers. The bundling of Microsoft's competing Internet Explorer browser with Windows amounts to an illegal tying arrangement under antitrust law, the government has charged.
A chief stalling point, however, is Microsoft's claim that Internet Explorer is an integral part of Windows, and that removing its code would destroy the normal functioning of the operating system. The Redmond, Washington, company also cites a June ruling from a federal appeals court that held Microsoft generally is free to add new features to Windows.
But testimony from Felten, who on Monday is expected to take the stand at Microsoft's antitrust trial under way here, disputes the software giant's defense. "IE Web browsing can be removed from Windows 95 and Windows 98 without affecting any non Web browsing functionality provided by Windows," Felten wrote. "Microsoft could have produced a version of Windows 98 with IE Web browsing in a way that did not adversely affect non Web browsing features of 98."
Microsoft, for its part, said in a statement that Felten's testimony alleging that it is possible to remove Internet Explorer from Windows fails to address a question at the core of the case: whether Internet Explorer is a product separate from Windows.
"You can surgically remove someone's right arm, but the arm was certainly a useful part of the person's body before it was removed," Microsoft argued in the statement. "In the world of software, with enough engineering effort nearly any functionality could be hidden or "removed" from nearly any product."
Microsoft also disputed that Felten in fact ever successfully removed Internet Explorer from Windows, saying he was merely able to hide some of the browser functionality. "He has actually removed almost none of the Internet Explorer software that provides Web browsing and other functions in Windows," the software giant argued.
The problem with removing the browser has been the "modular" design of Windows. Many of the same "dynamically linked" files needed to run Internet Explorer also are necessary to run non-browsing operations. Removing the files often results in an operating system that is completely nonfunctional.
But according to Felten, he has designed a prototype of a de-installer program that removes only the Internet Explorer routines from the files, while leaving the remaining code untouched. The result, he testified, is a fully functional version of Windows 98 that contains no Web browsing capabilities. Such a version, he added, has a number of advantages, among them the elimination of "hard-wired" code that causes Internet Explorer to be invoked for certain tasks--even when Navigator is the default browser.