Mozilla accuses Microsoft of blocking other browsers from ARM devices

10 May 2012

An illustration of the browser wars in recent times by Galit Weisberg (aka Shoze)

The battle of the browsers is rejoined – this time Mozilla is accusing Microsoft of playing dirty and hindering its ability to put its Firefox browser on ARM devices being designed for the forthcoming Windows 8.

Mozilla argues that the upcoming release of Windows for the ARM processor prohibits any browser except Internet Explorer running in the Windows Classic environment.

In 2004, the EU slapped Microsoft with a massive €530m fine for anti-competitive and monopolistic practices regarding its browser being bundled with Windows to the detriment of competing browsers. Over the course of the decade-long dispute, Microsoft was fined a total of €1.68bn.

Now Mozilla asserts we’re returning to those digital dark ages. If it is correct, then Microsoft is treading dangerous waters as a deal brokered with the EU that ended the decade-long dispute could see Microsoft fined 10pc of turnover if it misbehaves again.

A return to the digital dark ages?

Writing in the Mozilla blog, Harvey Anderson, VP of business affairs and general counsel for the company, said: “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,” Anderson said.

In the future ARM will be significant on the PC platform, too

Anderson pointed out that Windows on ARM as it is 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,” Anderson said.

He called on Microsoft to remain firm on user choice principles and a market approach that was both notable and beyond US Department of Justice antitrust settlement obligations and runs afoul of EC browser choice commitments.

“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,” Anderson warned. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years