Mozilla and Google claim the software giant has reverted to its worst habits – blocking Firefox, Chrome and other browsers from running on the ‘Windows RT’ desktop. We want to make it very clear that this will not affect Windows 8 on traditional PCs, or in fact anything using a traditional ‘x86’ processor. The next Microsoft operating system leads something of a double life, as the first Windows with two distinct versions for two distinct classes of processor. Traditional ‘x86’ chips will run on Windows 8, while the competing ‘ARM’ architecture has a version officially called Windows RT. Tablets will almost exclusively use the latter given the dominance of ARM processors in such devices and it's that version of Windows that will face this restriction.
The new Windows also leads a double life on the interface side. Whichever version you use there is the tile-based ‘Metro’ mode resembling a giant version of the latest Windows mobiles, alongside a more traditional ‘desktop mode’. The meat of it is that according to both Google and Mozilla, Microsoft will allow only reduced functionality for third-party browsers in the Metro mode and not allow third-party browsers at all in Desktop mode. In a conversation with Mozilla passed on to Cnet, Microsoft’s David Heiner explained that ARM processors have new security and power management requirements and that only Microsoft could meet them - basically saying that Microsoft was merely looking after its customers. Unsurprisingly, Mozilla and Google have objected publicly:
"They're trying to make a new version of their operating system which denies their users choice, competition, and innovation" - Harvey Anderson, Mozilla.
“We share the concerns Mozilla has raised regarding the Windows 8 environment restricting user choice and innovation. We've always welcomed innovation in the browser space across all platforms and strongly believe that having great competitors makes us all work harder. In the end, consumers and developers benefit the most from robust competition.” – Google
In fairness to Microsoft there is some substance to its reasoning, for example Internet Explorer’s notably class-leading power usage results. The restrictions are also not all that different to Apple’s smartphone and tablet policy – and they do allow some streamlining functionality and potentially improves security, however this is at the expense of choice and functionality. It's also noteworthy that as a result of Android, Mozilla, Opera Software and Google probably all have more experience with ARM than the Internet Explorer team, contrary to Microsoft's statement. Android itself manages well with different browsers and it is much more that style ‘malleable’ experience, with customisable software, that users have come to expect from the Windows OS. As such this restriction of choice could well damage the brand and annoy customers who expect something different. While the distinction between Windows 8 and Windows RT may be solid in Microsoft's head, it is very much less so for the consumer; Windows 8 and Windows RT appear very similar and picking up an 'ARM' powered Windows RT tablet vs any 'x86' powered Windows 8 tablet it would be difficult to tell the difference - until you try and install a new browser.
Microsoft appears to want the RT fork of its Windows 8 trident to sell to consumers on name and familiarity while admitting to developers “Windows RT isn’t Windows anymore” (that's a direct quote). Certainly MS are changing functionality as compared with what we've come to expect, and are likely doing so to maximise their market share and margin. We're unsure at this point if this restrictiveness will apply to other programs - Atomic will keep a close watch as this develops. Microsoft have yet to comment and are pointedly refusing to return our, and it seems everyone else’s, calls. It will be interesting to see what they have to say when they do finally decide to comment.
We wonder if some kind of backtracking isn’t ahead given the current negative responses...