May 10, 2012

Will Microsoft Allow Third-Party Browsers On Their New Operating Systems?

Remember the 90s, when rockstars wore flannel, smartphones were all but non-existent and Windows 95 was the best operating system out there? Do you also remember when Microsoft had run into some antitrust problems because Windows users didn´t have a choice of which web browser to use?

It seems history could repeat itself as Mozilla is claiming Microsoft´s new operating system Windows RT (or runtime, previously known as Windows on ARM) has some technical restrictions, keeping their Firefox browser and other browsers off the new Windows machines and tablets.

Originally announced during CES 2011, Microsoft caught the attention of tech fans and developers alike when it announced plans their new tablet operating system would operate on an ARM chip. What´s more, this light-weight operating system would also work within Windows 8. Windows RT will feature two different interfaces, one touch-friendly and the other more like a traditional Windows 7 desktop. Windows RT and Windows 8 will differ, however, in how they handle applications.

As it stands, Windows 8 will support three different types of applications: Metro, (which look like the Zune and Windows Phone apps) classic desktop and Metro-styled enabled browsers, or MEDB.

Wanting to get an early jump on things, Mozilla has already begun development on a MEDB version of Firefox for Windows 8, allowing users to take advantage of the app on both their desktop and tablet machines.

Where Mozilla has run into trouble is how Windows 8 handles these MEDBs. If Internet Explorer is your default browser in Metro, you won´t be able to run Firefox.

Microsoft is also insisting developers for the new Windows RT must sell their apps through Microsoft´s application store, making them adhere to a strict set of rules, much like Apple. As such, developers like Mozilla will have a harder time developing for the platform.

According to Mozilla´s general counsel Harvey Anderson, these reasons combine to make it impossible for third-party web browsers to run on their new platform.

"Unfortunately, the upcoming release of Windows for the ARM processor architecture and Microsoft's browser practices regarding Windows 8 Metro signal an unwelcome return to the digital dark ages where users and developers didn't have browser choices," Anderson said in a blog post explaining their frustrations.

"By allowing only IE to perform the advanced functions of a modern Web browser, third-party browsers are effectively excluded from the platform. This matters for users of today's tablets and tomorrow's PCs. While ARM chipsets may be primarily built into phones and tablets today, in the future ARM will be significant on the PC hardware platform as well," said Anderson.

Apple´s CEO Tim Cook may have predicted some of this drama unfolding when he made his Jobs-ian quip about tablets and computers being built to work together being more akin to a “Refrigerator-toaster.”

While Microsoft may be taking a cue from Apple and locking up their app store tight to keep some of the riff-raff away, they are taking a significant stand in wanting to combine the meld the experiences between tablet computing and desktop computing. As they continue to hammer out the details, they may have to handle more issues like this in the future.


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