Will Microsoft block Chrome and Firefox from Windows 8 tablets?

Both Google and Mozilla are hard at work porting Chrome and Firefox to Windows 8, building Metro versions of their browsers. Microsoft, though, could block both browsers from running on Windows 8 tablets. It's not clear yet that something Microsoft will do.

A month ago Mozilla was the first company to announce that it was developing a Metro-based browser to compete against Internet Explorer on Windows 8. As a first step, Mozilla said it would develop a "technology proof of concept" of the browser, to be launched in the second quarter of 2012, followed by alpha and beta versions in July through December.

Mashable reports that Google is working on a version of Chrome that will work on Metro as well. A spokesperson told the site: "We're in the process of building a Metro version of Chrome along with improving desktop Chrome in Windows 8 such as adding enhanced touch support."

There's a chance, however, that neither Chrome or Firefox will be allowed to run on Windows 8 tablets. Gregg Keizer of Computeworld notes that Firefox will use the existing Gecko libraries to build the Metro version of Firefox. But he warns that the browser will not run on Windows on Arm (WOA), the version of Windows that will run on tablet. He writes:

If Mozilla's assumptions are correct -- that it will power Firefox Metro on Windows 8 via current Gecko libraries -- its new browser would run only on Windows 8, not on WOA.

In Windows 8 PCs, Microsoft will allow browsers to be directly downloaded and installed, without having to go through the Windows Store. But on tablets, that's not the case -- all apps, including Metro browsers, will have to be downloaded via the Windows Store. Microsoft controls what apps are available in the Windows Store, and which aren't allowed in. That means that theoretically Microsoft could block Chrome and Firefox (or any other browser) from being available through the store.

Microsoft couldn't ban them on a whim, or it would potentially face legal action. But it could come up with a technical reason, such as not adhering to any of its standards. Some of those standards are laid out in a recently published white paper about browser development for Windows 8.

Mozilla recognizes that Firefox might not be available on Windows 8 tablets. Brian Bondy, a platform engineer with Mozilla, has this to say about that in his blog:

"The Firefox Metro enabled desktop browser can be, and will be included and packaged in the traditional way. I'm not certain if it will be allowed on the Windows store or not since it is not of Metro application type."

When he says that it is "not of the Metro application type," that doesn't mean it's not developed for Metro. It means, instead, that it can run either as a Metro app or a Desktop app.

Even if Firefox and Chrome are available on Windows 8 tablets, it'll be tough for them to gain any market share there. Metro only allows the default browser to run. So if Internet Explorer is the default browser, no other browser will be allowed to run on Metro. To run another browser, you'll have to make it the default, and then only it will be allowed to run.

Will Microsoft block Firefox and Chrome from running on Windows 8 tablets? That's not at all clear, but it would be a mistake. Not allowing popular browsers to run on the tablet could cut down on its appeal for people. Microsoft tablets are far behind the iPad and Android tablets, and Microsoft needs to do everything it can to get people to buy Windows 8 tablets. Not allowing popular browsers to run on them would only cut into the potential market share.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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