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Mozilla Possibly Tripped Up by Windows 8 'Default Browser' Complexity

Mozilla's decision to halt its Firefox browser development for Windows 8.1 may be due, in part, to a complexity associated with the operating system, according to a Mozilla engineer.

Brian R. Bondy, a Mozilla Firefox engineer and former Microsoft MVP, offered up that opinion in a blog post today. Last week, a Mozilla official had claimed that there weren't enough Windows 8.1 testers of its emerging Firefox browser to justify going ahead with production. Consequently, Mozilla decided to put that project on hold, with the option to ramp it up again should Microsoft's OS take off.

Bondy offered up another explanation for the lack of testers, adding that it didn't bode ill with regard to the success of Microsoft's "modern" or Windows Store Apps (formerly known as "Metro") side of Windows 8.1

"Is Windows 8.1 modern UI in trouble? No," he wrote in the blog post.

The low number of testers found by Mozilla had to do with Microsoft compelling users to make a browser the default on Windows 8.1 systems in order to run it on the Windows Store Apps side of the OS, Bondy contended.

"Several people could have had a Modern UI capable Firefox pre-releases installed, but just never knew it," he wrote.

He also contended that Microsoft made it more difficult for users to set the default browser choice in Windows 8.

Before Windows 8, each browser could prompt you, and then they could set your default for you. As of Windows 8 you need to ask first, then tell Microsoft to show a prompt that shows a list of browsers (confusing). And that only sets the HTTP default. If you want all defaults, such as HTML and HTTP, then you have to send the user to control panel, make them search for the browser, then make them select your browser and set all defaults.

The Mozilla engineering team, early on, didn't seem too happy about developing for Windows 8, based on their past descriptions. Windows 8 has two user interfaces. The Windows Store Apps side of the OS runs applications full screened, flat and without chromed borders. The Desktop side of the OS resembles the more familiar desktop environment seen with Windows 7. Architecturally, it reflects the separation of the new WinRT platform from the older Win32 platform.

Microsoft offered a specific way for browser makers to develop for Windows 8 in a document, which originally described building "a Metro style enabled desktop browser." That document (Word doc) is now retitled, "Developing a new experience enabled desktop browser," and it's updated for Windows 8.1. It explains that a browser built for Windows 8.1 can only function on the Windows Store Apps side of the OS if the user makes it the default browser:

You can think of a new experience enabled desktop browser as a desktop browser that can also participate in the new experience. The restriction to limit new user experience participation to the user's default browser is rooted in preserving the new user experience.  Note that this limitation applies to all browsers, including Internet Explorer.

However, this advice only applied to Windows 8/8.1 systems running on x86/x64 hardware. Microsoft apparently restricted browser access to the Windows Store Apps side of Windows RT ARM-based systems, except for its own Internet Explorer browser. That circumstance prompted protests from both Mozilla and Google at the time.

Bondy urged Microsoft to "fix these issues around default status," adding that "every Windows Modern UI user loses when there's only one Modern UI browser choice."

There are a couple of alternatives. Google's Chrome browser and Opera Software's browser both can run on Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 systems, leveraging the Windows Store Apps side of the OS.

As for Windows 8 adoption, Net Applications' data showed it at 6.38 percent in February, with Windows 8.1 adoption at 3.1 percent (Net Applications' site provides graphs that separate those two OS versions). That estimate is in line, to a degree, with StatCounter's measurement of Windows 8 at 7.3 percent. Windows 8 was commercially released on new machines on October 26, 2012. Microsoft has had about a year and half to reach its current OS market share.

About the Author

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

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