Mozilla and Google accuse Microsoft of unfair browser competition

Mozilla and Google accuse Microsoft of unfair browser competition

Summary: Microsoft will restrict third-party browsers like Firefox and Chrome to the Metro sandbox in Windows 8 for ARM devices, while treating Internet Explorer 10 as an "intrinsic feature" of Windows. Mozilla and its primary backer, Google, say that's not fair.


With Windows 8, is Microsoft returning to its monopolistic roots?

That’s the question that Mozilla and Google seem to be asking this week. It’s taken a few months, but it’s finally dawned on both organizations that they won’t be able to deliver desktop versions of their browsers in Windows RT, the forthcoming version of Windows 8 that will run on low-power ARM chips.

Both Mozilla and Google have announced plans to create “Metro style enabled desktop browsers” for Windows 8 on x86 and x64 platforms. Like Internet Explorer 10, those will be dual-personality products that will run on the Windows desktop and in the far more restrictive Metro environment. By contrast, Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer 10 (and presumably later versions as well) will be the only browser that will run on the Windows RT desktop.

In a pair of blog posts, Mozilla project manager Asa Dotzler, who is leading the Firefox development effort for Windows 8, has called foul. Mozilla General Counsel Harvey Anderson also weighed in with a formal statement complaining about “platform lock-in.” In a statement to CNET’s Stephen Shankland, Google added its corporate voice to the chorus, expressing solidarity with “the concerns Mozilla has raised regarding the Windows 8 environment restricting user choice and innovation.”

In the first post, Dotzler argues: “Microsoft is trying to lock out competing browsers when it comes to Windows running on ARM chips. IE is allowed there but not Firefox or Chrome or Opera or any other competitive browser.”

Dotzler expands on those concerns in a follow-up in which he explains that it’s all about the APIs:

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.

What’s confusing about all this is that the desktop version of IE10 delivered with Windows RT isn’t going to be a full-strength browser like its counterpart on the x86/x64 platform. Although desktop IE10 on Windows RT will have access to win32 APIs, it won’t be able to run plugins (like Flash or Silverlight), nor will it be able to hook into other apps running on Windows RT except through the permitted “contracts” mechanism.

The real advantage for IE10 is performance. As Steven Sinofsky explained in the most thorough outline to date of how Windows on ARM will work:

ARM SoCs for WOA have DirectX capable GPUs (DX) for accelerated graphics in Internet Explorer 10, in the user interface of Windows, and in Metro style apps.

But modern browsers rely on much more than the GPU for performance. Dotzler’s fear is that third-party Metro style browsers like Firefox will be hobbled, performance-wise, because they’ll be unable to use the same performance-enhancing techniques they use currently. And he argues in the comments section of his own post that IE10 has an unfair competitive advantage in that regard:

IE 10 on Win8 is mostly win32. They have a minimal front end coded in winRT and to hook into Metro capabilities like contracts but all of the performance critical paths are running against win32.

A Metro app also runs in a sandbox that prevents things like calls in to make memory writable -- something you need (and all browsers, including IE use) for a JIT, without which you cannot have fast JavaScript. It also prevents creating additional processes, something we use for sandboxing plug-ins and other browsers, including IE, use for sanboxing [sic] tabs.

Microsoft’s own documentation seems to agree. In the Building Windows 8 post, Sinofsky notes that the requirement for Metro-only apps on 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.”

The trouble with those tricks is that they also enable unreliable, memory-hogging, performance-draining apps. Ironically, Mozilla itself recognized that possibility last year when it blocked a McAfee add-on for Firefox, noting the add-on “causes a high volume of crashes.” A separate McAfee add-on was flagged earlier this year for performance problems after a Mozilla engineer said it “drags down Firefox and causes huge memory leaks.” Firefox itself has long been a target of complaints over its memory usage.

By restricting apps to the Metro environment, Windows RT will prevent those sorts of problems. It will also have a completely new security model that effectively kneecaps most forms of modern malware. Forcing all third-party apps to run in the sandboxed Metro environment and restricting delivery of Metro style apps to the Windows Store eliminates the most common vector for malware. Sinofsky again:

Our focus on delivering a new level of security for consumers using WOA is paramount. In one public event, we were asked if we would “make it easy for existing viruses and malware to run.” Now you can see the answer is decidedly, “no.” In fact, WOA only supports running code that has been distributed through Windows Update along with the full spectrum of Windows Store applications. As we all know, security is an industry-wide, multi-dimensional challenge and no system or platform can make broad claims without considering many factors.

In Windows RT, the Windows desktop is there for legacy purposes. The only apps that will run there are those that are part of a new, specially compiled version of Office 15. In a list of “intrinsic capabilities of Windows,” Microsoft pointedly includes “the new Start screen and Metro style apps and Internet Explorer" along with "the Windows desktop with tools like Windows File Explorer and desktop Internet Explorer.”

The design of Windows RT doesn’t contemplate any mechanism for including or updating Win32 apps. The only way to deliver security and feature updates is through the Windows Store (for Metro style apps) and through Windows Update (for Microsoft’s own code that runs Windows and those “intrinsic features”).

Dotzler accuses Microsoft of deliberately violating “the promises they made to developers, users, and OEMs about browser choice in documents which mysteriously disappeared from Microsoft's site.” That accusation, which is based on a dead link from a 2006 press release, seems at least partially unfounded. A significantly updated version of that document, covering open standards in general, is available at the Microsoft Open Specifications site. It doesn’t mention browsers or media players, which were the focus of the original document, but focuses instead on open standards.

At this late date, the likelihood that Microsoft will change the architecture of Windows RT to allow Firefox and Chrome onto the desktop is zero. The release candidate of Windows 8 will be publicly available in 30 days, which means the code is already firmly locked down.

The unanswered question is whether Mozilla or Google wants to elevate its complaints into a formal antitrust complaint. Given that ARM-based Windows devices have a market share of exactly 0% right now, with no guarantee that the new platform will succeed, that seems like a risky strategy. The argument is especially weak given that both companies have full access to the enormous base of x86 and x64 PCs.

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?

The other complicating factor is that Mozilla is likely to be seen as a puppet of Google in this regard. Remember last year, when Mozilla renewed its partnership with Google for a $300 million-per-year deal covering three years. In 2010, 84% of Mozilla’s revenue came directly from Google. With the new deal tripling Google's contribution, that percentage appears to be significantly higher, perhaps as high as 93% (Mozilla has refused repeated requests for additional details on its financing).

Given its own ongoing troubles with antitrust regulators, Google might not want to be dragged into a high-profile antitrust battle with Microsoft at this point, even by proxy.

See also:

Topics: Apps, Browser, Google, Hardware, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Processors, Software, Windows

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Can't run Chrome and Firefox on an iPad either

    Given you can't run Chrome or Firefox on an iPad - why haven't Google and Mozilla lost their bickies about that? Shirley there are more iPads out there than there will be WinRT computers for the medium term future.
    • And before others come and start telling that there are

      other browsers in the App Store, they all use the APIs provided by iOS and use WebKit rendering engine. So technically they are just skinned Safari browsers. Opera Mini works a bit different. It renders pages offsite on its own server farms and sends them down to the device.

      It would be nice to know why these restrictions on iOS have not bothered Mozilla and Google.
      • Probably Because...

        ... Apple has continued to feature Google as the default search engine in Safari. Also, they know that the fraction of iOS users who'd use an alternative browser is in the very low single digits, possibly a fraction of one percent.

        That creates a very chicken-and-egg situation, where Firefox on iOS wouldn't get much development love, and wouldn't run competitively (for all the reasons that Sinofsky listed above, plus more).

        This complaint strikes me as very parallel to Adobe's angry "Screw You, Apple" rant. Made when Adobe & Google were getting into bed together (just before Jobs penned his "thoughts on Flash,"), its author Brimelow didn't mention that iPhones of the era *had* less memory than Flash arrogated on my laptop, and used more CPU *AND* GPU power than the iPhone had. And of course, as we subsequently saw, Adobe didn't have the dedication to their own product to sustain it on other platforms, even.

        I don't know if Ed is actually insinuating that Mozilla's complaint is *JUST* a Google PR foray, but if he wanted to make that case, there'd be some history that could show it was part of an ongoing pattern of proxies' PR wars against Apple. Personally, I think Mozilla is a useful protection of Google's interests, although at a couple hundred million per year, a rather pricey one.
      • No insinuation

        Walt, you ask whether I am "insinuating that Mozilla's complaint is *JUST* a Google PR foray."

        Of course not, but given that Mozilla is essentially a wholly owned subsidiary of Google, one must follow the money.
        Ed Bott
        • Mozilla is essentially a wholly owned subsidiary of Google

          This is an important point. If ZDNet depended on Microsoft for 95% of its revenue, or even 50% for that matter, I'd be profoundly skeptical about ZDNet's coverage of Microsoft, and I'd be equally skepticle when ZDNet criticised Microsoft's rivals.

          When Mozilla criticises Microsoft, as in this case, it looks like a corporate glove puppet.
          Tim Acheson
      • Mozilla does not like Google

        @Ed @Walt It tolerates them and takes their money. Google does not like Mozilla but it pays them to get search traffic (via the top right search box) and monetizes it for a net profit. Mozilla complaining absolutely != Google proxy PR.
      • Just, curious. Will Opera Mini be allowed on Windows RT?

        1773 wrote:
        [i]Opera Mini works a bit different [on iOS]. It renders pages offsite on its own server farms and sends them down to the device.[/i]
        Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Technically safari is a skinned konqueror browser.

        Webkit isn't Apples, in fact Google have done more work on it than Apple. Other apps are going to do that it's easy money as most phone apps are.

        I don't know what was done to reduce it down to run on phones though. I know CSS works very differently.
      • Because...

        Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox never depended on Apple for their survival in the market place. Microsoft locking them out of fair competition on the main platform that their survival depends upon is indeed something they should be concerned about.

        If your company's very existence depended on fair competition on the MS platform it would be of absolutely no consolation for someone to point out that the Apple platform is also restrictive.
      • @rbradbury and @Ed

        Follow the money? Mozilla complaining absolutely != Google proxy PR. Both companies are absolutely fighting for their right to survive in their respective markets. With MS in the OS, search and browser markets Google could not survive without strategic alliances and its own browser. Mozilla would not survive either. They may not like each other as one poster mentioned but this decision by MS is an absolute threat to both companies. Do you really think MS has any goodwill towards its competition in any market? Follow the money is a great catch phrase. Follow the money. MS would destroy any competitor in all markets if it were allowed to. Fairness in the marketplace is something MS will only go by with a court order, and as history shows with them shipping windows with IE, not even then.
      • RE: And before others come...

        Can one run IE on Chromebook out of the box? I've read one needs a third-party app to do that.
      • IE on chromebook

        If you got IE running on chromebook, Microsoft would have you in court so fast they might actually keep up with linux lewis. No-one would choose to run IE unless they knew no better as any factual argument would show.
      • Those are device-wide restrictions on iOS

        [i]It would be nice to know why these restrictions on iOS have not bothered Mozilla and Google.[/i]

        Because on iOS all apps operate under the exact same restrictions.

        On Windows RT Microsoft have reserved the desktop for their own exclusive use, where IE can run outside of Metro's restrictions. This guarantees that IE will always be the most powerful browser on Windows RT, whatever Mozilla or Google develop.
      • Not all iOS browsers in the app store use WebKit.

        You may want to edit your post.
      • Let's hope Mozilla and Google sue them

        [i]Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox never depended on Apple for their survival in the market place. Microsoft locking them out of fair competition on the main platform that their survival depends upon is indeed something they should be concerned about.[/i]

        Not to mention the fact that Apple has their tablets under their own brand name whereas Microsoft will probably follow the old OEM model route and have HP or Dell branded tablets locked in to using Win8 exclusively. This invites the same kind of anti-trust comparisons that they were convicted of back in the late 1990s.

        Microsoft could probably get around that by branding their own tablets but they won't do it because they can't think outside their own box they locked themselves into for the last 20 years.

        Let's hope Mozilla and Google sue them over this.
      • RE: Let's hope Mozilla and Google sue them

        Mozilla and Opera are at the greatest disadvantage as they have no platforms (yet). Their web browsers are dependent on others platforms.

        Opera has the best chance with Microsoft as they creatively made Opera Mini work on iOS. Will they have an opportunity to be similarly creative with Windows RT? If not, they will likely go to the European Commission (EC).

        Google is on thin ice because of Chrome OS and Chromebooks. One has no option except for Google's Chrome browser. The pot calling the kettle black.

        Mozilla is weakened by not having made an issue of iOS web browser restrictions. However, they may still try to go after Microsoft. If Opera goes to the EC, expect Mozilla to join them.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Because you can run...

      lots of browsers on an iPad, and the Macs are unaffected and work just as you would expect.
      Tony Burzio
    • that's bad too

      but M$ is a proven convicted monopolist.
      The Linux Geek
      • There's no such thing as a "convicted monopolist"

        They were found to hold a monopoly. There's nothing wrong with that.

        However, once you hold a monopoly, you are constrained in what you can do (particularly in regards with what you do that might "extend" that monopoly).

        Until you are found to hold a monopoly, actions like those are probably legal. But, once you are found to hold the monopoly, they suddenly become illegal. Some of Microsoft's actions were deemed to have been illegal attempts to extend that monopoly.
      • Ah, those silly anti-trust laws

        But now we are talking about a wide range of devices, not just PC's and clearly Android has the majority share here, followed by Apple with their iPad devices.

        So let's apply different standards to Android and Apple--since that's what these laws are all about.