[UPDATE] Microsoft is scrapping the E editions of Windows 7. See this post for details.
Now I'm sure you've heard this news before reading this, but in case you haven't prepare to be shocked and bemused...
Following on from various wrangling and threats of fines after a complaint to the European Union from browser maker Opera about Microsoft's bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows being anti-competitive, Microsoft has stated that it will release special E editions of the different Windows 7 versions in Europe. Windows 7 E editions will not contain a web browser, and unlike the old N (which didn't contain Windows Media Player, to try to please the EU, and which nobody bought), there's no option this time - if you're in Europe, you get the E edition and you can't purchase a version of Windows 7 that contains IE.
Funnily enough Opera isn't pleased about this, presumably because they have to now provide a distribution mechanism for people to get their browser onto a PC that doesn't have a browser already with which to download it, and increasingly may not have an optical disk drive. Opera would like Windows 7 to include a "ballot screen" which would provide a selection of browsers that the user could choose from. It doesn't take a genius to see why Microsoft would be reluctant to do that since however they ordered the options, someone would be bound to complain (and by "complain", I mean "probably take legal action").
It's not all bad though. The majority of consumers who use Windows get it with a new PC, and the OEMs who manufacture those PCs aren't going to send one out to retail without a web browser. They'll undoubtedly do deals with one browser company or another to bundle their offering as they do with anti-virus and other software. The vast numbers of Windows users in a corporate environment don't need to worry either since their IT department will sort them out. The only people who are really affected by this are the small percentage who buy a boxed (or downloaded) copy of Windows 7 to upgrade an existing computer. It's a small percentage of people who buy Windows this way simply because the numbers of corporate users and PC buyers are so large, but I expect that the number will be larger with Windows 7 simply because it's so much better suited to running on existing hardware than Windows Vista was - I'm running it quite happily on my netbook and I also put the release candidate on my mother's creaking "built for XP" laptop with 512Mb RAM; it works fine!
I said this affects people who are buying a copy to upgrade, but the other caveat to this is that because there were no Windows Vista or XP E editions, Microsoft isn't providing Windows 7 E upgrade versions as they have done previously. They are providing the full version of Windows 7 E, in the UK, for roughly the equivalent of the upgrade pricing they're using outside the EU if you pre-order from selected suppliers between now and the 9th August.
So, if you're moving your old PC to Windows 7 E, not only will you not have a browser, but you're going to have to do a clean install too. Microsoft have put up a web page which takes you through the steps you can take to make the transition as painless as possible. Obviously it tells you how to get to running Windows 7 E with IE8, but if you already use a different web browser I'm sure you can work out how to switch it in at that point.
Of course it's not only people using Windows in Europe who are impacted by the release of the E editions. Software developers worldwide, who may have used the fact that IE was present in every version of Windows in their applications, will have to look at ways around it being missing, or another browser being in its place. There is some excellent advice for developers on the Windows blog about this. I'd recommend that Windows sys admins check that out too, since it'll help them in testing software before rolling it out across their Windows infrastructure.
NB. If you're yet to try out the Windows 7 Release Candidate, don't wait too long - the download page says it's only available until the 20th August. Windows 7 will be available to volume license customers on the 1st September, and on general release from 22nd October.