Extent of ban is unclear, but Google and Mozilla are outraged, say Microsoft is promoting a monopoly

In early version suggested that Metro UI third-party browsers are banned.  Mozilla has indicated that Microsoft is actually banning desktop mode third-party browsers ("classic" mode browsers).  While not banned in Metro UI, Mozilla says Microsoft is still trying to cripple third party browsers via API denial.  Microsoft counters saying it gives them some extra API privileges, but has not promised to give Mozilla or Google access to all the APIs that Internet Explorer has in Metro UI.

Windows 8 RT "isn't Windows anymore."

I. The Ban

That's allegedly part of what Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) attorney David Heiner told Mozilla general counsel Harvey Anderson, during his attempt to explain why Microsoft was banning third-party browsers from the Metro user interface (UI) for Windows 8 RT -- the version of the upcoming OS which will run on ARM architecture chips, targeting tablets and low-power laptops.

Microsoft claims it is only looking out for number one -- its customers.  It is quoted by Mr. Anderson as claiming that third-party browser makers like Mozilla and Google Inc. (GOOG) would be incapable of dealing with the power and security needs of the mobile atmosphere, hence they will be relegated to the low-use traditional "Classic" UI porton of Windows 8 RT.  Hence, according to the clearest account (from the Mozilla Foundation), Microsoft is denying third party browsers installation rights on the "Classic" (desktop) mode.  At the same time it is denying them access to crucial APIs in Metro UI mode, essentially leaving any would-be third party Metro UI browsers crippled.

Windows 8
Microsoft appears to be on the verge of banning third-party browsers from its Metro UI, at least for the ARM OS version for tablets and laptops. [Image Source: Hardware Canucks]

The stance is not entirely unique to Microsoft.  It is rather similar to Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) policy.  While Apple has allowed some third-party browsers for its iPad tablet, it will only accept browsers that are essentially reskins built atop its base Webkit code, which it co-develops with Google.  The sole exception to date has been Opera Mini from Norwegian browser maker Opera Software ASA (OSE:OPERA) (Firefox has not yet been permitted on the iPhone/iPad, nor has Chrome).  

Of course Microsoft stand is also rather unique in that it also will likely affect some of the Windows 8 laptop population.  Even Apple hasn't been bold enough to ban third-party browsers on its laptops, not yet at least.

There may be some truth in Microsoft's argument, as it's working the closest with hardware developers and has the best knowledge of its low level firmware and is hence best positioned to promote power efficiency or security.  But it's also hard to avoid the perception that Microsoft's decision to ban third-party browsers from what may be one of its most attractive Windows 8 segments is awful convenient given Internet Explorer's market share, which has plunged to its lowest level in a decade.

II. Mozilla and Google Cry Foul

Mozilla wrote a stern blog rebuffing the mandate, commenting:

We encourage Microsoft to remain firm on its user choice principles. Excluding 3rd party browsers contradicts Microsoft’s own published Principles that users and developers have relied upon for years. These principles represented a Microsoft market approach that was both notable and went above and beyond their DOJ antitrust settlement obligations.

The not-so-subtle allusion to the U.S. government's antitrust action against Microsoft is seconded by comments by Mr. Anderson in a CNET interview.  He suggests that legal action may be a necessary panacea to the problem.  He remarks, "Sometimes they need some pressure... If it turns out to be legal pressure, that could be the thing."

Adding to the chaos is a new statement from Google commenting:

We share the concerns Mozilla has raised regarding the Windows 8 environment restricting user choice and innovation. We've always welcomed innovation in the browser space across all platforms and strongly believe that having great competitors makes us all work harder. In the end, consumers and developers benefit the most from robust competition.

This statement adds a new layer of uncertainty and doubt, because it makes it sound like Microsoft may be applying the ban not only to Windows 8 RT, but perhaps to all Windows 8 distributions.

Google Chrome Logo
Google and Mozilla, both of whom were reportedly developing Metro UI browser apps are outraged at the tenative ban on third party browser software. [Image Source: Google]

As The Verge puts it:

Its [sic] not clear if Google's mention of "Windows 8" is simply poorly worded or if it has broader issues with the Metro environment.

Regardless, the statements from the two biggest third-party browser makers on the Widnows platform seemingly confirms beyond a doubt that Microsoft is indeed contemplating some kind of browser ban/crippling (via API/rights denial), even if it unclear exactly how far that ban will extend.  

And that's a rather astounding move.  Yes, Microsoft may be right -- it knows the low level hardware better than anyone.  But the same could be said of traditional Windows and Microsoft has hardly showed itself capable of providing the most power efficient or fully functional browser.

III. Antitrust Suicide: What is Microsoft Thinking??

The not-so-subtle elephant in the room is that Microsoft is cracking open wide a massive can of antitrust worms.  The European Union already fined over $2B USD in total for simply not allowing users to chose a separate default browser at install time with Windows Vista/Windows 7.  Microsoft was forced to not only pony up cash, but also release a special version of Windows 7 to placate EU antitrust enforcers.

Compared to Microsoft's much more subtle ploy of simply making its browser the only pre-installed browser and the stock default browser, a complete (permanent) ban on third-party options in part of Windows 8 and alleged crippling in the other part seems a positively suicidal move from an antitrust perspective when we're considering a laptop operating system -- a market that Microsoft owns in excess of 85 percent of.

Of course Microsoft, would surely defend its approach, but EU regulators have not seemed particularly fond of siding with Microsoft in past browser spats.

Seppuku wide
The browser ban seems suicidal from an anti-trust perspective. [Image Source: Euro-Synergies]

Again, it's hard to know what Microsoft is thinking here as the company has refused to comment on the statements and we only have Google and Mozilla's information to rely on.  It's possible that Microsoft is only considering the ban for non-EU distributions of Windows 8 (such as the U.S. version).  But even in the more lax antitrust atmosphere of the United States, it's hard to imagine that antitrust regulators would buy such a decision, particularly given the clout that Mozilla and Google command in the federal government.

Remember, the 1999 case revolved around accusations that Microsoft boosted its Office suite by denying third parties API access.  Granted the situation is a bit different in that this may only apply to one architecture, but there's still cause for concern and caution, even in the U.S.

This is a very surprising development and should be a very interesting issue to watch in coming weeks.  I expect Microsoft to fully recant on its decision to ban third-party browsers, but the key question is whether it is wise enough to make that move on its own free will or whether it is foolhardy enough to persist in the policy until legal challenges land and it is struck with more antitrust punishments.

Sources: Mozilla, CNET [Google], [Mozilla], The Verge

"Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine." -- Bill Gates

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