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Mozilla Lawyer: Windows RT Excluding Other Browsers

An attorney at Mozilla suggested on Wednesday that Microsoft may be moving into antitrust territory by effectually restricting browser choice on Windows RT (formerly known as "Windows 8 on ARM").

Harvey Anderson, vice president of business affairs and general counsel at Mozilla, claimed in a Mozilla blog post that there will be technical restrictions in Windows RT that will diminish the performance of any other browser except Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Those technical differences mean, in effect, that only Internet Explorer will be able "to perform many of the advanced computing functions vital to modern browsers in terms of speed, stability and security to which users have grown accustomed."

Anderson specifically used the "antitrust" word, and he pointed to Microsoft's past commitments to the European Commission to allow browser choice in Windows in Europe, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice oversight (now expired) that ensured Microsoft provided open APIs and clear documentation to other developers leveraging Windows.

"Because 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," Anderson wrote. "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."

Of course, most people assume that Windows RT is just "another of version Windows." However a CNet article quoting Anderson points to a Microsoft attorney claiming that Windows RT "isn't Windows anymore." Purportedly, the attorney who made that statement was David Heiner, deputy general counsel at Microsoft.

API Restrictions?
The technical ideas behind the browser restrictions were outlined by Mozilla spokesperson Asa Dotzler. He said in one blog post that on x86 hardware, Windows 8 affords the same privileges to other browser-makers as it does to Microsoft with its IE browser, meaning that API access is afforded. In a second blog post, he clarified that it's a different story for non-Microsoft browser-makers when developing for Windows RT. The same sort of API access isn't there for third-party developers making Metro-style browsers for Windows RT.

"A browser running exclusively in Metro does not have the APIs necessary to compete with IE or any other modern browser," Dotzler stated about alternative browsers running on Windows RT Metro.

Google, which provides financial backing for Mozilla's Firefox development, provided a statement on Thursday backing Mozilla's assertions. "We share the concerns Mozilla has raised regarding the Windows 8 environment restricting user choice and innovation," the released statement read, according to The Wall Street Journal.

In March, Mozilla and Google both indicated that they were building Metro-style browsers. "Metro" is Microsoft's name for a user interface (UI) associated with its Windows Runtime in Windows 8. Applications built for Metro run in full-screen mode, lack chromed borders and are optimized for touch-screen use. Microsoft also will have another UI in Windows 8 that is most often referred to as "desktop," although Mozilla officials called it "Classic." Apps built for the desktop UI have the look and feel of Windows 7 applications, running with chromed borders and menu trees.

Desktop vs. Metro
Windows 8, both on x86/x64 and ARM hardware, will have both Metro and desktop UIs, and Internet Explorer 10 will arrive with the capability of running in both UI modes. However, Metro-style browsers have to be set as the default browser to work on the Metro side of Windows 8, according to Microsoft. So users would need to specify that choice on Windows RT devices, especially if they wanted to use a browser other than IE. Microsoft claims that its insistence on having a default browser in Windows 8 is no different than that requirement in Windows 7, but there does seem to be a difference here.

While that distinction may be confusing for Windows RT users, it's an even more complex world for browser-makers. On the x86/x64 side, they can only create what Microsoft calls a "Metro style enabled desktop browser." That means that the browser is built for the desktop side of Windows 8, but it can run on x86/x64 as a Metro-style application or as a desktop application. Microsoft has a whole white paper (Word doc) devoted to this topic. However, on the Windows RT side, Mozilla is claiming that limitations exist on doing that very same thing.

Here's how Dotzler explained it.

"Third, there are Metro style desktop enabled browsers," he wrote. "These are programs that straddle Classic and Metro. They have access to the underlying win32 API like Classic programs and they also have access to the cool new features of Metro. They can have a classic front end and a Metro front end but under the covers they're calling into both the Classic and Metro APIs. In this category you have Internet Explorer 10, Firefox, and likely other browsers including Chrome and Opera."

He claims that "IE on ARM has access to win32 APIs -- even when it's running in Metro mode, but no other Metro browser has that same access. Without that access, no other browser has a prayer of being competitive with IE."

Digital Dark Ages?
Microsoft wouldn't comment on the claims. Meanwhile, Mozilla's Anderson said in the blog post that the arrival of Windows 8 on ARM will represent "an unwelcome return to the digital dark ages where users and developers didn't have browser choices."

It does appear that Microsoft may be clawing back to square one with Windows RT to a time when the browser wars began. Historically speaking, Microsoft was successful in destroying its Netscape browser rival because the legal antitrust process in the United States was just too slow and too lax (compared with the European Union) to keep up with the pace of technology and marketing. Possibly, that classic antitrust turf is being trod again with Windows RT.

However, Microsoft observer Ed Bott claimed in a blog post that Microsoft is starting from scratch with Windows 8 on ARM, and therefore no competitive harm can be proved in the courts. It might be a winning legal argument, although it's hardly ethical. There's also the argument that Apple has been left untouched by the legal system after excluding other browsers from leveraging iOS. If Apple gets away with it, why can't Microsoft? A third argument is that Mozilla should just accept the restrictions of Windows RT, which is designed to add greater security to applications.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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