Back to the Future: Windows RT Browser Wars

on May 10, 2012

Internet Explorer 3 iconThis morning, I had the strange feeling that I was back in 1997. With Google cheering them on, Mozilla complained that Microsoft was unfairly excluding browsers other than Internet Explorer from devices, expected to be mainly tablets, running the forthcoming version of Windows designed for ARM processors.

A bit of background: Browsing on Windows 8 for Intel/AMD processors will be open to all comers. But Windows RT, the ARM version, places many restrictions on applications. Microsoft says the only applications with full, desktop-style access to the system with be a version of Office, the Explorer file manager, and the Internet Explorer 10 browser.

Strictly speaking, Mozilla is right. It does not appear that browsers other than IE will be allowed on Windows RT. But so what? Microsoft was nailed in the turn-of-the-century antitrust suit for using Windows’ mono[poly position on desktop computers to restrain competition in the browser market. But Windows’ monopoly isn’t what it once was, and Win RT doesn’t have a monopoly of anything. We have yet to see a fully functioning version of it demonstrated publicly.

Furthermore, Apple, which arguably does have a monopoly (and remember, a monopoly is only illegal if it is obtained illegally or if it is abused) in tablets, doesn’t welcome browsers other than Safari on iOS devices. There are alternative browsers available in the app Store, but they are skins slapped on Safari. Apple would seem a more appropriate target for frozen out Google and Mozilla.

Maybe this is just reflex, or maybe Microsoft seems an easier target because of the antitrust history. But the Modified Final Judgment that settled the case lapsed a year ago, though there is still ongoing supervision as a result of a case brought by the European Commission.

That may be what’s behind a curious comment attributed to Microsoft Deputy General Counsel David Heiner. CNET reports that Heiner told Mozilla that Windows RT “isn’t Windows anymore.” That may just be a lawyerly way of saying that Windows RT is a new product, outside the scope of previous antitrust judgments.