Mozilla, Google Take Microsoft Back to the Future With Browser Complaint

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2012-05-10

Mozilla, Google Take Microsoft Back to the Future With Browser Complaint

With Mozilla and Google challenging Microsoft for its decision on which browser can run on Windows on ARM-based devices, the question remains as to what will happen next.

Mozilla and later Google complained that Microsoft€™s plans to allow only its Internet Explorer browser to run on Windows on ARM, better known as Windows RT, is unfair. So why now for this complaint? And what are they prepared to do about it? Will there be renewed antitrust action against Microsoft like there was years ago when the software giant was accused of using its Windows monopoly to unfairly provide an advantage for IE over the then very hot Netscape browser?

Well, a post by Harvey Anderson, Mozilla general counsel, offers an indication, if not a threat, on what the maker of the Firefox browser is considering: €œBecause Windows on ARM relies upon so many traditional Windows assets, including brand, code, footprint, and experience, the decision to exclude other browsers may also have antitrust implications. If Windows on ARM is simply another version of Windows on new hardware, it also runs afoul of the EC browser choice commitments and seems to represent the very behavior the DOJ-Microsoft settlement sought to prohibit.€

Does this mean Mozilla, possibly joined by Google, is preparing to run to the European Union or the U.S. Department of Justice for some €œrelief€ here? Will Microsoft relent? Microsoft is not commenting.

Microsoft stated its plans for Windows on Arm in a post on the Building Windows 8 blog. In that post, Steven Sinofsky, Microsoft€™s president of Windows, said, €œWOA supports the Windows desktop experience, including File Explorer, Internet Explorer 10 for the desktop, and most other intrinsic Windows desktop features€”which have been significantly architected for both touch and minimized power/resource consumption.€

Microsoft made its intentions clear that it would enable third-parties to build Metro-style apps, which would run on Windows RT. Both Mozilla and Google announced that they were building Metro-style versions of their browsers. However, the problem for them lies in the fact that Microsoft is only enabling IE 10 to run on the Windows RT desktop.

In a post on the issue, Asa Dotzler, the software engineer directing Mozilla€™s development for Windows 8, said:

Here's what's going on. For Windows on X86, Microsoft is giving other browsers basically the same privileges it gives IE. It's not great that you don't get those privileges (certain API access) unless you're the default browser and I think that's deeply unfair (a post for later,) but at least we're able to build a competitive browser and ship it to Windows users on x86 chips.

But on ARM chips, Microsoft gives IE access special APIs absolutely necessary for building a modern browser that it won't give to other browsers so there's no way another browser can possibly compete with IE in terms of features or performance.

Microsoft Argues That Security Is Core to Its Strategy

Microsoft argues that security is core to its strategy with the Windows RT desktop. ZDNet€™s Ed Bott builds a case for this argument in a post, saying the requirement for Metro-only apps on Windows RT eliminates many of the programming tricks used by developers, which could also lead to security issues.

€œThe trouble with those tricks is that they also enable unreliable, memory-hogging, performance-draining apps,€ Bott said. He added:

By restricting apps to the Metro environment, Windows RT will prevent those sorts of problems. It will also have a completely new security model that effectively knee-caps most forms of modern malware. Forcing all third-party apps to run in the sandboxed Metro environment and restricting delivery of Metro style apps to the Windows Store eliminates the most common vector for malware.

Moreover, many observers argue that Apple does the very same thing in restricting browser access to iOS in its iPad environment. However, Dotzler argues, €œApple is not a convicted monopolist that has legally binding commitments to not block access to browser-related APIs like Microsoft.€

€œWe have not heard Microsoft articulate this formally, I don€™t think, but presumably Microsoft feels that in order to compete with the iPad they have to create a walled-garden environment that mimics it and that x86 PC Windows 8 systems are out there with a more traditional and open model,€ Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC told eWEEK. €œIt is hard to tell how well that will work out for Windows RT, except that it is unlikely to help sell more units of the ARM devices in its early days.€

Indeed, Dotzler€™s argument tends to ring a bit hollow when one looks at market share and the direction the business is taking. Apple has a clear and substantial lead in the tablet space and is not likely to be caught by Microsoft or anybody else. Yet, as Hilwa says, what€™s to say what will happen beyond the €œearly days.€ Some industry observers say they expect Windows 8 to be a flop. Or it could be a major hit. It seems like Mozilla is hedging its bets and hoping for the latter.

But a key question is how far are they willing to push it? Will they go knocking on the EU€™s or DOJ€™s doors?

€œWe encourage Microsoft to remain firm on its user choice principles,€ Anderson said in his post. €œExcluding third-party browsers contradicts Microsoft€™s own published Principles that users and developers have relied upon for years.€

Going further, Anderson finished his post by adding:

The prospect that the next generation of Windows on ARM devices would limit users to one browser is untenable and represents a first step toward a new platform lock-in. It doesn€™t have to be this way. In announcing the Windows Principles, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith, stated, "As creators of an operating system used so widely around the world, we recognize that we have a special responsibility, both to advance innovation and to help preserve competition in the information technology industry." We encourage Microsoft to remain firm on its user choice principles and reject the temptation to pursue a closed path. The world doesn€™t need another closed proprietary environment, and Microsoft has the chance to be so much more.

We will have to see if this encouragement will suffice. Perhaps Microsoft will give in and decide to let Mozilla, Google and others into the Windows RT desktop. Or maybe they€™ll decide to level the playing field by taking IE out of it.

In a separate ZDNet post, Mary Jo Foley says, €œI agree with my ZDNet colleague Ed Bott that the chances that Microsoft is suddenly going to allow Firefox or Chrome to run on the Desktop in Windows RT are close to zero.€

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