Windows RT browsers and the point of Windows RT

Windows RT browsers and the point of Windows RT

Summary: It's no surprise that Firefox and Chrome won't run as desktop browsers on Windows RT devices; Microsoft has been saying all along that x86 apps wouldn't run on Windows on ARM and it explicitly said there would be no third-party code on Windows RT when it announced the details of the platform back in February.

TOPICS: Windows

It's no surprise that Firefox and Chrome won't run as desktop browsers on Windows RT devices; Microsoft has been saying all along that x86 apps wouldn't run on Windows on ARM and it explicitly said there would be no third-party code on Windows RT when it announced the details of the platform back in February. That's no plugins for IE on the Windows RT desktop as well as no desktop Firefox and Chrome, and if Mozilla and Google didn't notice that at the time, it's tempting to ask whether they were paying attention. Equally though, you do have to pay attention to get Windows 8, Windows RT, WinRT and Metro straight and Microsoft's cone of silence on some aspects of Windows RT hasn’t always made that easy.

The desktop code that runs on Windows RT will be the Windows desktop and the tools that are "intrinsic" to Windows, which includes Internet Explorer (as well as a management agent, Explorer, control panel and so on), plus Office.

We don't know how many of the Win32 APIs are there on Windows RT, although we expect the answer is something like 'only the ones that Office and the intrinsic-to-Windows tools require' because anything else is a waste of space, the time it takes to port and the surface that has to be protected against threats. Microsoft has been working on making the Windows desktop run and run well on ARM for longer than the iPad has been on sale (there's a photograph of it on a phone with the data in the metadata). It would have been obvious early on that virtualizing existing Windows apps would only get you slow apps that chewed up battery life. And it probably became obvious while making IE and Windows 8 run well on ARM how much work it would take for anyone else to do that. Microsoft doesn't want Windows RT to become slow and battery hungry because of someone else's code running on the desktop. Either it blocks third party code or it gets into the business of testing and approving third-party code.

There's another platform that doesn't have any third-party browsers; iOS. You can't run Chrome on the iPad. You can't even use the full Safari in an iOS application; you don't get the JIT, which makes the performance of Web apps on iOS less than impressive compared to running the same page in the browser. WinRT gives anyone wanting a browser-based app the same hardware-accelerated performance as the browser, on Windows RT or Windows 8.

Is it different for Microsoft to say 'no third-party desktop code' than for Apple to say 'no other browsers on iOS' or RIM to say 'no third-party mail clients in BlackBerry App World'? The aim in all three cases seems to be about protecting the user experience. It sounds different for Windows because we know Windows as a general purpose operating system. But whether it has a keyboard or just a touch screen, a Windows RT device isn't a PC the way we know it today; it's an appliance - like an iPad. A more specialised, more limited-purpose device, sacrificing universal flexibility and power for performance, battery life and security. That's a trade that large numbers of users and developers have already been happy to make on iOS. It seems churlish to say it's OK for Apple but terrible when Microsoft does it, just because we're used to what Windows has always been.

I've been calling it an open question whether WinRT is a powerful enough framework to write a complete browser in, especially given the sandboxing model for security. We don't know if the question is settled because we don't know if Google or Mozilla have tried and failed, or decided that it's not worth trying; it may be simply too much work to be worthwhile and it's certainly more work than waving the threat of legal action. It doesn't mean Microsoft is wrong to lock down Windows RT the way it has. It means it's important to understand clearly what Windows RT is and what it's for. Mary Branscombe

Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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
  • While I do side with you with your statement on Apple's iOS being closed, we should also consider Android tablets and make note that they DO allow 3rd party applications, like Firefox. Some will say that having too many 3rd party applications can hurt the environment (which it can); I think that some of the responsibility falls into the hands of the users of such devices, and what apps they install. They should be treated like a computer, in my opinion, and care should be taken at what apps are installed. I absolutely refuse to buy any device (phone, tablet, PC, etc.) that is locked down in such a manner that I can't even install what applications that I want. In my opinion, a tablet that can do 20 functions is a better value than one that is locked down and can only do 10 functions.
  • Apex - the question then is what about letting the user choose to have a tablet where they don't have to have that responsibility? why can't the user choose an appliance? true choice allows people to chose something beyond what you choose yourself ;-) And the other question is what's better? 10 good functions or 20 average ones? Does Firefox on Android perform well? Does Flash on Android impact battery life? (Quite a bit in my experience). The sales figures for iPad versus all the Android tablets including Kindle Fire (which accelerates its browser in the cloud) suggest that a lot of users want the appliance rather than the full computer. Open is, as you say, a responsibility; lifts and fridges and DVRs and wireless routers are all appliances and the average user doesn't expect to update or extend any of them. I think that should be a choice too...

    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • @Mary

    Microsoft could always send Mozilla a spec sheet and oblige them to meet the same standards as IE. Then Mozilla can spend millions of dollars on programming Firefox for the Windows RT desktop, which has precisely zero market share.

    And while the Firefox programmers are wasting their time, Google Chrome will continue to walk all over Firefox....

    Since Mozilla's senior staff are not so stupid they don't already know this, it looks like they are playing politics. And playing politics rather than fixing their inferior browser is what ultimately killed Netscape.
    Jack Schofield
  • Ok I'm sure the Chrome and Firefox Metro apps will be just fine. What's all the fuss about? It won't be that long until there is a full PC based tablet with super long battery life anyway.
    roger andre