Microsoft bans Firefox on ARM-based Windows, Mozilla says

Raising the specter of last-generation browser battles, Mozilla launches a publicity campaign to seek a place for browsers besides IE on Windows devices using ARM chips.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
7 min read
IE10 screenshot
IE10: the only browser allowed on Windows for ARM-based devices? Microsoft

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 a 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.

In terms of worldwide personal computer browser usage, Microsoft's IE is on the rebound after years of declines.
In terms of worldwide personal computer browser usage, Microsoft's IE is on the rebound after years of declines. Net Applications

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.

IE9 logo

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.

Clearly, Microsoft is concerned about keeping the best possible experience, and it's willing to clamp down on old-style Windows programming methods from the x86 era to do so. In a blog post about programming for Windows 8 on ARM, Microsoft's Windows chief Steven Sinofsky has this to say about moving Windows apps written for x86 chips to the ARM world:

If we enabled the broad porting of existing code we would fail to deliver on our commitment to longer battery life, predictable performance, and especially a reliable experience over time. The conventions used by today's Windows apps do not necessarily provide this, whether it is background processes, polling loops, timers, system hooks, startup programs, registry changes, kernel mode code, admin rights, unsigned drivers, add-ins, or a host of other common techniques.

Broken promises?
Mozilla also suggests Microsoft has gone back on 12 principles for promoting choice and competition on Windows that General Counsel Brad Smith announced in 2006.

The Web page about the principles is no longer obviously available on Microsoft's site, but a press release and Smith speech about it remain.

In that speech, Smith extolled the virtues of openness to others' applications.

We recognize that for users, an operating system is important solely because of what it allows other people to do on top of it. People don't buy a PC simply to run an operating system. They buy a PC to use all the applications and Internet services that they can access on top of that operating system.

The first principle comes directly out of the U.S. antitrust ruling and ensures that Microsoft will design Windows in ways that make it easy for computer manufacturers and users to install non-Microsoft applications and to configure Windows-based PCs to use non-Microsoft programs instead of or in addition to Windows features.

Smith cited iTunes as one example of software that Microsoft graciously accommodated even though it competed directly with its own Media Player product.

However, Smith indicated that not all decisions are final:

We'll review these principles from time to time, and at least once every three years, we'll sit down in a more formal way and we'll determine whether we should adopt additional principles to take account of new technologies or legal trends or business practices, and whether we should modify any of the existing principles to take account of these factors as well.

Reliving history
Internet Explorer's dominance, traces of which remain today especially in China, was indeed a grim period for Web developers in many ways.

The browser's dominance did simplify programming by letting many code for that single browser, which bucked some Web standards. But then Microsoft left IE6 largely untouched for years. A lot of online application innovation took place instead with Flash Player from Macromedia, later acquired by Adobe Systems.

Mozilla's release of Firefox in 2004 rallied allies who wanted something better. Mozilla and Opera, another browser rival, also began a project called the Web Hypertext Applications Technology Working Group to advance HTML standards when the World Wide Web Consortium decided it didn't want to. Apple later joined, too, and eventually the W3C picked up the baton again.

By the time Google arrived with Chrome in 2008, Microsoft was well on its way to re-engaging with Web standards work and to producing the vastly more competitive IE9. Now its competitive juices in the browser market are clearly flowing again.

But this is the kind of challenge that could rally Mozilla, too. The non-profit organization rose from the ashes of Netscape, and for years, much of its identity was defined in opposition to Microsoft. Mozilla embraced open-source software and touted the Web standards Microsoft ignored.

Now Anderson generally considers Mozilla's relationship with Microsoft as healthy.

There's one huge difference from the last-generation browser battles: Apple.

April 2012 mobile device browser statistics
Apple's Safari dominates mobile browsing. Net Applications

Safari is the dominant mobile browser by far, and on phones and tablets, Microsoft is very much the underdog. On ARM devices today, IE isn't even close to second-place Android.

So a complacent IE team seems improbable at this stage.

Anderson is still dissatisfied. Sure, people can switch to another mobile operating system by switching devices, but that's not easy.

"If that's your version of choice, I think that's a sad world, and it doesn't have to be that way," he said.

He remains optimistic that an amicable solution can be found. Microsoft altered course to let other browsers run in Windows 8's Metro interface on x86 machines, and Firefox and Chrome are headed for Windows 8 now. So the company can budge.

And for practical reasons, Mozilla hopes it will.

"I'm not inclined to look to judicial solutions as the No. 1 way to protect users," Anderson said. "I was at Netscape in the 1996 era. I watched the slow wheels of justice turn."

By that time it was over, Netscape was long gone as an independent company.

Updated 12:02 a.m. PT May 10 with further comment from Mozilla and a link to Anderson's blog post.