Senate Judiciary Committee staff have launched a preliminary probe into whether Windows RT, the coming version of Windows 8 for ARM processors, is anticompetitive because it gives preferential treatment to Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser.
Mozilla, maker of the Firefox Web browser, alleged last week that Microsoft intentionally is building advantages for IE into Windows RT over other browsers.
An aide to Judiciary antitrust subcommittee Chairman Herb Kohl, D-Wis., told reporters that Mozilla's charges will be examined by subcommittee staff. The initial efforts will be exploratory rather than a full-blown official inquiry involving hearings, the aide said.
Microsoft refuses to give Mozilla and other third-party software developers access to the requisite APIs for building browsers that can fully access Windows RT's complete set of capabilities when running in Metro mode. The rival browser maker claims that this violates a 2006 antitrust settlement between Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Google is also wary concerning how Microsoft's Windows RT strategy may affect Google's Chrome browser.
"We share the concerns Mozilla has raised regarding the Windows 8 environment restricting user choice and innovation," a Google spokesperson said in an e-mail.
Locking Out Competitors
Google noted that it has always welcomed innovation in the browser space across all platforms and strongly believes that having great competitors makes everyone work harder.
"In the end, consumers and developers benefit the most from robust competition," Google's spokesperson said.
However, that won't happen if Microsoft succeeds in locking out competing browsers when it comes to Windows running on mobile computing devices such as laptops as well as media tablets equipped with ARM-based chips.
"Microsoft made legally binding commitments around antitrust [which doesn't] go away because Microsoft wishes them away," said Asa Dotzler, the community coordinator for Firefox marketing projects. "None of the commitments talk about hardware -- tablet or laptop, ARM or x86 -- but they all apply to 'Windows,' " he wrote in response to a comment posted on his blog page.
Still, some industry observers have noted that with iOS, Apple has succeeded in placing mobile OS restrictions on software developers without drawing U.S. antitrust scrutiny. As a result, Apple's Safari browser currently dominates the mobile browser market worldwide with a 68.3 percent share, according to Net Applications.
"Upon the release of the latest version of the iPad, [iPad's browser] share has accelerated and now tops iPhone share 33.7 percent to 27.4 percent," the web metrics firm noted earlier this month.
The ARM Laptop Threat
Mozilla fears that Microsoft will similarly be able to use its new Windows on ARM strategy to further leverage its dominance over the traditional PC browser market. Mozilla's General Counsel Harvey Anderson explained that Windows on ARM prohibits any browser except for IE from running in the so-called 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," Anderson wrote in a blog Wednesday. "Given that IE can run in Windows on ARM, there is no technical reason to conclude other browsers can't do the same."
Firefox's share of the global browser market currently stands at 20.2 percent, reports Net Applications. By contrast, Microsoft's continued to dominate the browser market with a 54.09 percent share.
IHS predicted last July that machines running ARM-based processors will account for 22.9 percent of all notebook PC unit shipments worldwide in 2015 -- up from 3 percent this year. Moreover, the research firm noted that low-cost, power-efficient ARM-based processors are very well suited for use in notebooks priced under $700.