No Third-Party Browsers On Windows RT?

Martin Brinkmann
May 11, 2012
Updated • Sep 16, 2018
Windows, Windows 8

If you have paid attention to tech news over the past couple of days you have probably come upon the controversy surrounding Microsoft's upcoming ARM-based Windows RT operating system.

It all started with Aza Dotzler's post on his Mozilla web blog where he mentioned that Mozilla would not be able to bring Firefox to Windows RT. In it, Dotzler mentioned that other browsers were not able to compete with Microsoft's Internet Explorer on ARM devices running Windows RT due to API access restrictions.

According to the post, Microsoft is only allowing its own Internet Explorer browser to access these APIs, while other browsers are not allowed to do the same. At the same day, Dotzler posted a second article on his personal blog, shedding more light on the situation.

On x86 Windows 8 PCs, there are three kinds of software programs.

First, there are Classic programs that are basically the same as they are Windows 7. Because of the rich win32 API available in Classic, these kinds of programs can be really powerful (or not,) but they can only operate in the Classic environment and cannot use any of the cool new features available in Metro and they cannot be run in Metro. In this category you can think of programs like Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Word.

Second, there are Metro apps that are touch-focused, simpler, but have rich interactions between themselves and Metro and other Metro apps. 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 win32 environment -- APIs necessary for building a modern browser. In this category you can find apps like Angry Birds, Microsoft Stocks, or Hulu.

Third, there are Metro style desktop enabled browsers. These are programs that straddle Classic and Metro. They have access to the underlying win32 API like Classic programs and they also have access to the cool new features of Metro. They can have a classic front end and a Metro front end but under the covers they're calling into both the Classic and Metro APIs. In this category you have Internet Explorer 10, Firefox, and likely other browsers including Chrome and Opera.

Microsoft has made it clear that the third category won't exist on Windows for ARM (unless you're Microsoft) and that neither will the first category (unless you're Microsoft.) That means that IE on ARM has access to win32 APIs -- even when it's running in Metro mode, but no other Metro browser has that same access. Without that access, no other browser has a prayer of being competitive with IE.

Third party developers who want to create software for Windows RT, can only create Metro apps for that purpose, and this is what is restricting the developers when it comes to creating the software.

Google the next day joined Mozilla's position on the matter. According to Cnet, the company released the following statement to the press.

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.

When we look at Windows RT, we see that Microsoft has designed the operating system in a way that x86 or x64 applications can't be ported or run on the operating system. The core reason given for this approach is a "commitment to longer battery life, predictable performance, and especially a reliable experience over time".

The conventions used by today’s Windows apps do not necessarily provide this, whether it is 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. By avoiding these constructs, WOA can deliver on a new level of customer satisfaction: your WOA PC will continue to perform well over time as apps are isolated from the system and each other, and you will remain in control of what additional software is running on your behalf, all while letting the capabilities of diverse hardware shine through.

This highlights that it is not only about blocking web browsers, but all classic software from running on ARM. What Mozilla and Google criticize is that these restrictions do not apply to Internet Explorer. Other software companies might criticize that it is also not applying to Office, or other first party software that Microsoft integrates into Windows RT. The question here is if the new APIs are as restrictive as Mozilla and Google make them sound to be like.

As far as complaints go, it is not really clear why Mozilla, or Google for the matter, have not included Apple's iOS operating system in the complaint, as it is in some regards as, if not more, restrictive than Windows RT will be. While the Windows platform is still the dominating player when it comes to the desktop market, it is a tiny player in the mobile market, that is dominated by Apple and Google mostly. When it comes to browsers on these markets, it is Safari dominating the scene much like Internet Explorer is dominating the desktop browser market.

What's your take on all of this? Lets discuss in the comments.

No Third-Party Browsers On Windows RT?
Article Name
No Third-Party Browsers On Windows RT?
Microsoft's Windows RT operating system, a stripped down version of Windows 8 that runs on ARM hardware, may not allow third-party browsers.
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  1. Dexter said on June 11, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    I just don’t get one thing… WHY wouldn’t it be possible to make a modern browser for Windows RT? They need Desktop APIs… WHAT APIs?
    The only, and ONLY, thing you need to make ANY browser you want is Internet. And NOTHING else. Rendering engine? You can always write it yourself, or port an existing engine (like Gecko)! I know, it would be very, VERY hard – but it IS possible and will always be possible! There is NO way to really block a third-party Web browser from existing, and having ANY feature of IE10 or any other browser!

    That being said, the comment saying that iOS third party browsers “all have to use Safari’s web rendering engine” is totally wrong. You can use any engine you want without calling any *native* API – maybe just not easily. Take, for example, the Opera mobile – in the era of non-smartphones, it had practically everything a modern browser has today – and it was written ENTIRELY in Java, without ANY native APIs or similar! You just need enough knowledge and time.

  2. WK said on May 31, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    Just bought a Ideapad with Win 8 RT because the hardware package is cool. Software and OS is much to be desired. Microsoft should make things at least backward compatible or allow other browser and more application to be developed. To provide a total user experience. Exclusivity is thing of the pass. Think of users first. I might just go for chrome book with less cool hardware.

  3. jeff said on November 11, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    CONGRADULATIONS WINDOWS, I’LL BE TAKING MY SURFACE BACK. Kinda sad to do it, because I was starting to like this little guy. Why am I taking it back you might ask? Well it is that one little thing they forgot to tell me at the store where I bought it. No other browsers allowed! That’s right IE only. Guess what, I don’t like IE. I haven’t for the past 6 years, and now I like it less:) Good job at making your customers happy Mr. “Gated”. When will these guy’s grow up & start getting along? How much money is enough money to be happy & to be happy for other people? Really?

    1. jeff2 said on November 13, 2012 at 4:27 am

      There’s nothing on Windows RT keeping browser makers from targetting the Metro environment. Mozilla’s complaint is with regards to the Desktop portion of Windows RT, where yes, IE is the only browser that will ever be available. And if you have a Surface, you’ll know you rarely use that version.

      Second point, IE7 was terrible. IE8 was an improvement. IE9 was good. IE10 in Windows 8 is perfectly competitive with Webkit and the interface on the Surface is generations above Safari on the iPad, both in terms of usability and performance. Speaking of which, iOS doesn’t allow other browsers (other browsers can be downloaded, but they all have to use Safari’s web rendering engine)

  4. Josh said on August 13, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    So, does this mean nobody can make apps for microsoft except microsoft, or does this basically just make this like apples ipad ( anybody can make apps and stuff, but third party programs wont work)

  5. SCBright said on May 11, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    I’ll keep Windows 7 until the end of support. Next step? May be Linux.

  6. Turko said on May 11, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    Could it be that MS is doing this to discourage the adoption of ARM devices? If MS is it is to mount a comeback in the mobile market it must rely on x86 devices.

    Even if this is found to be anti competitive it will have served its purpose of discouraging the adoption of ARM in favor of waiting for x86 mobile chips.

    I don’t think MS is interested in creating a walled garden like Apple. It’s one of the biggest reasons corporations refuse to adopt Apple products. I just think they’re afraid of corps building around ARM. This gamble by MS favors Android if Intel and AMD fail to deliver on time.

  7. Jojo said on May 11, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    As far as complaints go, it is not really clear why Mozilla, or Google for the matter, have included Apple’s iOS operating system in the complaint, as it is in some regards as, if not more, restrictive than Windows RT will be.
    I think you are missing a NOT in the above.

    Anyway, sounds like Microsoft has decided to try Apple’s approach to computing.

    1. Martin Brinkmann said on May 11, 2012 at 8:09 pm

      You are right, corrected.

  8. Gonzo said on May 11, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    I smell another anti-competitive lawsuit against Microsoft.

    If I’m understanding this correctly MS is saying that third party apps are responsible for “breaking” Windows and therefor must me prohibited. To that I say, MS your dll lookup has been broken for YEARS (easy to hijack), you’re far from perfect!!

  9. ilev said on May 11, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    Not only browsers.

    Windows 8 / RT won’t support dvd\blu-ray playback and Microsoft suggested to use third-party applications, but Microsoft is restricting those applications as well.

    VideoLAN’s Jean-Baptiste Kempf on this matter :

    VideoLAN cannot plan anything about VLC project,
    since developers are volunteers :) However, we have
    given Win8 a quite serious look. So far, VLC runs
    on the Win8 desktop without any issue. However, for
    the Metro interface, it requires the usage of the
    WinRT sandbox. The WinRT seems too limited for VLC,
    so far. With a lot of work and resources, it should
    be doable, but we do not have those resources yet
    :) Any help is welcome! Note that the browsers are
    allowed on x86 to get an mixed application mode
    (used by Mozilla and Chrome) that is not available
    for other applications, so we cannot use it.

  10. Paul B. said on May 11, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    I think MS has, once again, overstepped itself. But rather than get into government regulation, I would like to see the competitors band together and put out a competitive OS. Google has proved it can be done, now it only has to be matured to the desktop level.

    Win8 seems to be a marketing attempt to sell a full OS to the small screen, for revenue purposes, rather than continue with the low cost Win Mobile fork. The Metro interface is catchy, but horrendously inefficient on the desktop. And it is not a simple thing to bypass it as we were told. Every time you hit the Start key it comes up, and MS had to be persuaded to include an All Programs function. How absurd can one get?

  11. Paul(us) said on May 11, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    I think its a ferry bad thing. Talking security (or as they say it “commitment to longer battery life, predictable performance, and especially a reliable experience over time”.) is just a way to say I want this corner of the market. I hope and wish that the outer software company’s will take Microsoft to the highest cord to fight this cartel forming from Microsoft.

    I do not say lightly go to the highest cord if necessary because I do not like that but right now Microsoft with this measure is trying to take over the hole market.
    Next to that I also do not like that Microsoft can penetrated main computer and lift any program app that I bought before. I think thatch ferry extrusive.
    With Windows 8 coming up with all those ferry restrictive measures I really to starting to dislike Microsoft. Do not forget that there are starting a Trent here and believe me when I say, I am totally sure that there going to be even much stricter in the future, once there dictator.

  12. MacMac said on May 11, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Mark my words.
    This piece of s–t called windows eight will NEVER be the third mobile ecosystem.

  13. Yoav said on May 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    I’m still in love with XP. No Metro BS for me…

  14. Roebie said on May 11, 2012 at 10:28 am

    “By avoiding these constructs, WOA can deliver on a new level of customer satisfaction”
    I can’t imagine ever being satisfied with IE.

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