Mozilla, maker of the Firefox Web browser, is accusing Microsoft of anticompetitive practices in connection with the coming launch of Windows RT, the version of Windows 8 designed to run on tablets and other devices using a non-x86 chip design.
According to Mozilla general counsel Harvey Anderson, RT, also known as Windows on ARM, will prohibit any browser except Internet Explorer from running in the "Windows Classic" environment.
Windows RT is expected to ship is expected to ship on new tablets and PCs powered by ARM processors beginning later this year.
"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," Anderson wrote in a blog post Wednesday.
Looking beyond the immediate tablet opportunity that Microsoft is looking to exploit, Anderson noted that many PC manufacturers also expect to deploy lower-cost ARM-based processors in some of the laptop and netbook models.
"That means users will only have one browser choice whenever there's a Windows ARM environment," Anderson said.
Stifling Browser Competition
With respect to Windows 8 running on PCs with the standard Intel-based x86 chip architecture, Microsoft does plan to give other browsers basically the same privileges it gives IE. But on devices equipped with ARM chips, Microsoft will give IE exclusive access to special APIs that are necessary for third-player developers to build a competitive browser product, said Mozilla Director of Firefox Asa Dotzler.
"There's no way another browser can possibly compete with IE in terms of features or performance," Dotzler said. "This is in direct violation of the promises they made to developers, users, and OEMs about browser choice in documents, which mysteriously disappeared from Microsoft's site."
By making anticompetitive claims about Windows RT right now, Mozilla is clearly hoping that the U.S. Department of Justice and the European Commission will more closely scrutinize what Microsoft plans. We asked Microsoft to explain its position on Mozilla's Windows RT claims, but the software giant declined to comment on the matter.
"It's not precisely 'running a browser in Classic' that matters for Windows on ARM," Dotzler said. "It's that running a browser in Classic is the only way that Microsoft has allowed us to get access to the APIs that a browser needs to deliver modern capabilities and performance in Classic AND Metro."
Abandoning Its Pledge
Following the expiration of its antitrust settlement with the U.S. government in 1996, Microsoft voluntarily pledged to be principled and transparent as it developed new versions of Windows.
"These voluntary principles are intended to provide the industry and consumers with the benefits of ongoing innovation, while creating and preserving robust opportunities for competition," said Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith. "The principles incorporate and go beyond the provisions of the U.S. antitrust ruling."
Among other things, Microsoft promised to configure Windows-based PCs to use non-Microsoft programs instead of -- or in addition to -- Windows features. What's more, Microsoft said it would "create and preserve opportunities for applications developers and Web site creators to build innovative products on the Windows platform -- including products that directly compete with Microsoft's own products."
By denying third-party developers access to the Windows RT APIs necessary for building a modern browser, Microsoft is abandoning its pledge, Dotzler and Anderson said.
"It means that IE on ARM has access to win32 APIs -- even when it's running in Metro mode -- but no other Metro browser has that same access," Dotzler said. "Without that access, no other browser has a prayer of being competitive with IE."