Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mozilla Complaints Target ARM-based Windows Why Not Apple?

Today's headlines have been full of posts regarding Mozilla's complaints about Microsoft’s plans to only allow Internet Explorer to run on at an elevated level in the "Classic" mode of Windows on ARM, better known as Windows RT. The complaint is that this will give IE and unfair advantage over other browsers that won't have access to many advanced APIs that are necessary for creating a browser with the same capabilities as the traditional desktop version of the application.

Microsoft has made its intentions clear, they would enable third-parties to build Metro-style apps, which would run on Windows RT however they will not run in the elevated Windows Classic mode. Both Mozilla and Google announced that they were building Metro-style versions of their browsers. For both companies the problem lies in the fact that Microsoft is only enabling IE 10 to run on the Windows RT desktop.

So what is the issue?

In a post on the issue, Asa Dotzler, the software engineer directing Mozilla’s development for Windows 8, said:
Here's what's going on. For Windows on X86, Microsoft is giving other browsers basically the same privileges it gives IE. It's not great that you don't get those privileges (certain API access) unless you're the default browser and I think that's deeply unfair (a post for later,) but at least we're able to build a competitive browser and ship it to Windows users on x86 chips.

But on ARM chips, Microsoft gives IE access special APIs absolutely necessary for building a modern browser that it won't give to other browsers so there's no way another browser can possibly compete with IE in terms of features or performance.

Dotzler elaborated more on the issue in a second blog post and even gave a bit great insight into the issues he feels Mozilla and Firefox will face. "It's not precisely "running a browser in Classic" that matters for Windows on ARM. 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," Dozler write.

Effectively there are separate levels of access for Windows RT. One for metro only style apps and one for classic mode system apps. Microsoft will only allow specific apps to be elevated to access all the features of classic mode. Leaving Mozilla, Google and other third party vendors the option to use metro. These apps have access to some cool new Metro features but they live in a Metro sandbox and cannot use any of the more powerful features available from the Classic environment.

Why is this important?

Mozilla isn't so much worried about the Windows RT and tablet environment. They are more concerned that ARM will be migrating to laptop, full blown tower PCs and all-in-one PCs in the future. To them this is not a tablet-only concern rather a concern that the Windows RT environment will be used as a standard Windows replacement on more devices. They feel that if the exclusion is made now they might loose out on the chance to be competitive in the ARM marketplace down the road.

I'm personally not convinced but this is the basis of their arguments.

So why not fire back at Apple for doing the same thing?

Personally I've asked for years why Google and Mozilla haven't fired these letters expressing Antitrust concerns over the walls of Apple garden. Apple does the very same thing they are charging Microsoft with in restricting browser and application access to iOS. Apple uses they same sandboxing under the same guise that Microsoft is. According to Microsoft Windows RT eliminates many of the programming tricks used by Win32 app developers, including “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.” These are typically responsible for unreliable, memory-hogging, performance-draining apps that Apple all to often blocks from the AppStore.

So why the double standard you may ask. Well Dotzler makes it clear for us, “Apple is not a convicted monopolist that has legally binding commitments to not block access to browser-related APIs like Microsoft.” Basically he is saying because Microsoft has prior commitments to the DOJ and responsibilities against anticompetitive behavior they are the easier target! A view that I feel is very hypocritical!

If you are going to fire off shots at Microsoft for antitrust concerns despite their lack of prescience in two major markets, two markets by the way where your browsers are already being blocked then why not fire the same shots at Apple which holds the lions share of those markets. Mozilla is charging that Windows on ARM may some day be a major market player, yet iOS is already one and they aren't concerned with sharing that market? What gives here?

Will we see anything come of this?

How far will Mozilla and Google push? Well as of right now that isn't clear. Whether Mozilla or Google wants to elevate its complaints into a formal antitrust complaint is uncertain. Given that ARM-based Windows devices have a market share of exactly 0% right now, with no guarantee that the new platform will succeed, it seems unlikely that even if they did there would be much made of it. The question then would come down to whether or not Windows on ARM is just Windows on another device or a new separation for Microsoft. Depending on the view of the OS the DOJ or even the European Union might be interested in the case. However given that both companies have full access to the enormous base of x86 and x64 PCs and full access to the rest of the Windows 8 line-up it would be doubtful we'd see anything in the way of a full blown lawsuit.

In addition, it’s hard to argue that consumers are being damaged. In the 1990s, Microsoft was accused of having a chokehold on the Internet with its Windows monopoly. In 2012, with the proliferation of Internet-connected mobile devices, Apple’s strength in Mac sales, and iPad’s stranglehold on the tablet market, can anyone make a plausible case that consumers will lack choice?

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