Before the introduction of Firefox in 2004, Internet Explorer was used by the majority, and because of this monopoly, innovation was not at its best to say the least. Fortunately, things have moved thanks to the power of open source, a few legal actions and the hard work of companies such as Google or Opera.
We’re now enjoying choice across all platforms. Even if mobile still lags behind desktop, users of the main OS’s have access to an ever growing range of third-party browsers (Mozilla, Chrome may even land on iOS, at some point) but this is not true everywhere. Microsoft wants you to use Internet Explorer more than ever, especially since the relative success of Windows Phone 7.
Windows Phone is a very cool “new” entrant. Really. Apart from one main thing which is the browser. As Web is my favourite way to access content, I can’t really deal with a browser that is not rendering web pages properly, and that is not offering what the stock browser, Chrome beta or Firefox are on Android. The good news? that’s not an issue since Windows Phone is a modern OS allowing third-party apps to be installed on it. The Windows Marketplace is actually full of alternatives. Strangely, no presence for the main browsers. Why? Well, that’s the bad news: although Microsoft is allowing third-party browsers to be submitted to the Marketplace, these need to rely on IE’s rendering engine to be approved. A very sneaky barrier to entry in my opinion.
Let’s be straight; Microsoft is going backward with this kind of behaviour. The only common ground between platforms – mobile, tablet, desktop, TV – is the web. Not capitalizing on it, is just forgetting how important it is to be part of the current cross device, cross OS’s interactions momentum – the main browsers’ sync features are nothing but confirming this. By pushing its own solution, Microsoft is also dramatically affecting mainstream users, since most of the improvements implemented to the desktop version of Internet Explorer are coming from competitors innovations (tabs, private browsing, better compliance to standards, etc.). I’m not even mentioning that Microsoft is obviously trying to trick the regulator: It will take time for any case to be filled considering the current issue is a bit more technical than bundling a browser with an OS. Of course, we don’t have to use Microsoft’s products, but this hold-up intended by Microsoft is really unpleasant.
On the bright side, things seems slightly better with the upcoming version of Microsoft’s OS. Windows 8 will allow third-party browsers, and the Chrome and Firefox’s teams are currently developing their very own Metro-ised version to offer choice from the beginning. That’s a great step forward even if some points remain very worrying. Yes, as usual the sky is not completely blue in Redmond.
Microsoft chose – again – the sneaky way by limiting the API functions third-party Metro apps could use and, even worse, scrapped the right for these third-parties to run in the good old desktop mode – which would have allowed them to access the same features as Internet Explorer 10. That’s for Windows RT only at the moment, but no one likes the idea, starting with third-party browsers’ main voices:
“on ARM chips, Microsoft gives IE access special APIs absolutely necessary for building a modern browser that it won’t give to other browsers so there’s no way another browser can possibly compete with IE in terms of features or performance”. Asa Dotzler, Mozilla.
With this fall’s release, it’s hard to imagine any change will be made on these limitations. If Mozilla and Google will keep developing the x86 versions of their Windows 8 browsers, it will be a while before we can use Chrome or Firefox on an ARM device. Both organisations will probably prefer not to offer their browser on this platform – like for Windows Phone 7 – than providing their users with a poor and limited experience. In the meantime, Internet Explorer 10 is possibly going to make its way back into the charts. Of course, that’s only if Windows 8 becomes popular. If it does, and if ARM chips migrate to desktop as it’s meant to happen, it will be harder and harder to avoid the return of a browser monopoly, and why not a fall-back of today’s main actors towards their own environment: IE on Windows, Safari on iOS, Chrome on Chrome OS, Firefox on Linux OS’s. I don’t really want that, who does?