Firefox for Windows 8 forging ahead but faces key challenge

Mozilla has developed its first prototype of the browser for the Metro UI, but a challenge awaits Firefox and other Windows 8 browsers.

Firefox for Windows 8 in its early stage.
Firefox for Windows 8 in its early stage. Mozilla

A Windows 8 version of Firefox that can function in both the Metro and desktop arenas has gotten one step closer to completion. But will it be able to play in both worlds?

Last week Mozilla created a working browser for the new Windows interface. Blogging about his team's progress yesterday, Mozilla's Brian Bondy confirmed that the prototype looks and feels like the Android version with a variety of active features.

"You can navigate the web, create tabs, bookmark pages, build history, retain cache, adjust preferences, and more," Bondy said.

Even further, the prototype can tap into some of the integration baked into Windows 8. Using the Metro snap feature, users can snap another Metro app alongside Firefox to view both side by side.

The browser can also make use of the Windows 8 Search Charm, which allows users to search for a URL or for any text string via the default search engine. And the Share Charm is also in place, a feature that lets you share a Web page with someone else via e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and other apps.

But there is a key challenge that may prove thorny once Windows 8 is released.

Following Microsoft's own guidelines, Mozilla is creating Firefox for Windows 8 as a "Metro style enabled desktop browser." That jargon means that a single browser app can fully function on both the Metro Start screen and the desktop, with all the benefits of both environments.

The catch? Only the default browser can operate in this fashion. Windows 8 browsers not set as the default will operate strictly as desktop apps. You can still create a tile to launch them from the Start screen, but they'll open only on the desktop.

Microsoft did not immediately respond to CNET's question on why the functionality is limited this way. But I think the company is opening itself up to trouble down the road.

If IE10 and Firefox and Google Chrome are all designed as Metro/desktop browsers, but only the default can play that way, then a lot of browser developers are going to be unhappy.

"If a browser does not support Metro, it is seriously at risk of losing the default browser status, and therefore significant market share," Bondy explained. "A browser without support for Metro, if default, would be taking away a Metro browser completely from the user's computer."

Built into Windows 8, IE10 will naturally be set up as the default browser from the get-go.

Users who install another browser will likely be asked if it should become the new default. Whether they answer yes or no, it still leaves only one browser able to participate in the Metro experience.

Microsoft has run into trouble in the past over how Windows handles rival browsers. The company was prompted by antitrust complaints from the European Union in 2009 to cook up a choice screen that would let users install and set up rival browsers as the default.

Unless Microsoft can find a way past the new browser limitation in Windows 8, the company could very well face a similar dilemma once the new OS launches later this year.

 

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