Microsoft bans Firefox on ARM-based Windows, Mozilla says
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Microsoft muscles aside other browsers and cements the dominance of Internet Explorer. The browser market, deprived of competition, stagnates.
That, of course, is what happened during the first browser war of the 1990s and beyond, on personal computers. Today, Mozilla's top lawyer warned that Microsoft's behavior threatens a repeat of history, because it's telling Mozilla that it's barring Firefox from forthcoming Windows 8 machines that use ARM processors.
"They're trying to make a new version of their operating system which denies their users choice, competition, and innovation," said Harvey Anderson, Mozilla's general counsel. "Making IE the only browser on that platform is a complete return to the digital dark ages when there was only one browser on the Windows platform."
Anderson has been discussing the matter with his counterparts at Microsoft, but the company hasn't budged, he said. Anderson also detailed concerns in a blog post.
Microsoft declined to comment for this story.
Microsoft's position raises the prospect not only of refighting the browser wars of more than a decade ago, but also of reviving the grindingly slow antitrust litigation from the U.S. Justice Department, 20 U.S. states, and the European Commission. The U.S. case is closer to today's situation: the accusation that Microsoft abused its monopoly power in Windows to crush browser pioneer Netscape.
"Microsoft used its monopoly power to develop a chokehold on the browser software needed to access the Internet," then-U.S. attorney general Janet Reno said upon suing Microsoft.
Although Microsoft didn't prevail in those cases, its, uh, competitive spirit appears to be unquenched.
Mozilla isn't considering legal action at this time, and Anderson said going to court would be "a solution of last resort." But it's an option if nothing changes.
"First I want to really see if Microsoft is intent on pursuing this path. They could have subsequent release that allows third-party browsers," Anderson said. "Sometimes they need some pressure. If it turns out to be legal pressure, that could be the thing."
Technically, Mozilla could release a version of Firefox for Windows 8's new Metro interface -- it's indeed building one for more traditional Windows 8 PCs that use x86 chips. But that browser would be crippled on Windows RT, said Asa Dotzler, a Mozilla spokesman.
"First, Microsoft has a browser that runs in Classic mode on Windows ARM. They are not allowing us that same access to run our browser on Classic. Second, Microsoft has a browser that runs in Metro mode on Windows ARM that has access to rich APIs that they are denying to third-party Metro browsers on Windows ARM," Dotzler told CNET. "So, we are denied the ability to deliver any browser on Classic, and we are denied the ability to build a competitive browser on Metro." Dotzler also elaborated on the issue in a first and second blog post.
Why bar Firefox?
Microsoft Deputy General Counsel David Heiner told Mozilla it won't permit other browsers for two reasons, Anderson said:
ARM processors, which power virtually all iOS, Android, and Windows Phone smartphones and tablets today, are different from the x86 chips that power PCs. The chips have new requirements for security and power management, and Microsoft is the only one who can meet those needs.
Windows RT -- the version of Windows 8 geared for ARM devices -- "isn't Windows anymore."
Anderson scoffs at the arguments. "I'm not aware that Microsoft is the exclusive and sole proprietor of technology capable of working in the ARM environment.... It's a different architecture, but it's not the first time we've had an OS that works on a different architecture," he said of the first point.
Of the second, he says Windows RT uses the same user experience, programming interfaces and Windows Update system. "The idea that it's not Windows it doesn't make sense."
Browsers, of course, aren't just any old software. They're essentially becoming miniature operating systems unto themselves able not just to show Web pages but to run Web applications. Browsers nowadays have multitasking, hardware-accelerated graphics, pop-up notifications, and built-in videoconferencing. It's no coincidence that IE10 will provide the display engine for some native apps, not just Web apps, running on Windows 8.
Not coincidentally, given their steadily more sophisticated processing capabilities, browsers are also a prime vector for attack. So Microsoft could perhaps be forgiven thinking that running multiple browsers on Windows would mean a bigger attack surface for those trying to compromise computers.
Pshaw, Anderson said. "I trust Firefox before I trust IE. That's one of the key reasons Firefox took off."
Overall, it looks like Microsoft is taking pages from the Apple playbook. On iOS, Apple permits only its WebKit browser engine to be used for Web apps and Web pages. That can simplify life for Web developers racing to adapt to mobile browsing -- but other browsers suffer.
And like iOS, Windows RT also only will be available preinstalled -- something that simplifies hardware combinations that can become a support nightmare. Windows RT also only will run software delivered through Windows Update or the Windows Store. [cnet]