For the past eight years, users and developers have enjoyed a Windows platform environment that offered users a choice of browsers to navigate their digital lives. It wasn’t always that way. Prior to the launch of Firefox in 2004, there was really only one browser for Windows – Internet Explorer. Only IE and Firefox had meaningful market share on the Windows platform from 2005-2009. The choices further increased with the introduction of Chrome, and today users can choose from a wide range of browsers. It’s hard to imagine what it used to be like. 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.
It’s reported that Windows RT (the name Microsoft has given to Windows running on the ARM processor) will have two environments, a Windows Classic environment and a Metro environment for apps. However, Windows on ARM prohibits any browser except for Internet Explorer from running in the privileged “Windows Classic” environment. In practice, this means 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. Given that IE can run in Windows on ARM, there is no technical reason to conclude other browsers can’t do the same.
Why does this matter to users? Quite simply because Windows on ARM -as currently designed- restricts user choice, reduces competition and chills innovation. 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. These environments currently have intense browser competition that benefits both users and developers. When you expand the view of the PC to cover a much wider range of form factors and designs as Microsoft and others forecast, it’s easy to imagine Windows running on ARM in laptops, tablets, phones, and a whole range of devices. That means users will only have one browser choice whenever there’s a Windows ARM environment.
We encourage Microsoft to remain firm on its user choice principles. Excluding 3rd party browsers contradicts Microsoft’s own published Principles that users and developers have relied upon for years. These principles represented a Microsoft market approach that was both notable and went above and beyond their DOJ antitrust settlement obligations.
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. 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.
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’s 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.
- Harvey Anderson, Mozilla General Counsel