Windows 8 forces other browsers out of Metro playground

APRIL 05, 2012

Firefox and Google have compelling reason to develop for Metro: Microsoft stacked the deck in the way Windows 8 handles default browsers

Firefox and Google have a vested interest in coming up with a Metro version of their browsers. As Firefox architect Brian Bondy puts it, "If a browser does not support Metro, it is seriously at risk of losing the default browser status, and therefore significant market share."
Why? Because Microsoft has stacked the deck.
Here's how it works. Just as in Windows 7, you need to set a default browser in Windows 8. In Windows 7, the default browser handles all the things you would expect a browser to handle: links in email messages and documents, rendering HTML files, the usual browser shtick.
Windows 8 is considerably more complicated because you have two versions of IE, one for the Legacy Desktop and one for the Metro Start screen. In Windows 8, if you choose IE as your default browser, you need to pick which version of IE is the default browser: Metro or Legacy. In a flourish of Windows-style user interface muddling, the place where you choose your default browser is not the same place where you choose which of the two IEs reigns as default.
Here's how Microsoft stacked the deck. As long as either version of IE is the default Web browser, there's an IE tile on the Metro Start screen. But if you make some other browser the default, the tile disappears. There isn't any way on heaven or earth to run Metro IE, unless IE is chosen as the default browser.
Don't believe it? See for yourself. Download Firefox or Chrome -- the latest versions of both work just fine on the Windows 8 Consumer Preview Legacy Desktop -- and choose either as the default browser. (To truly change the default, you have to work through Control Panel's Set Default Programs applet.) The minute you make either Firefox or Chrome the default browser, the IE tile on the Metro Start screen changes so that it no longer points to Metro IE, but instead points to the Legacy Desktop IE.
Since neither Firefox nor Chrome have Metro-style apps ready yet, that means you can't browse on the Metro side of the fence. Period.
It's entirely possible that Microsoft has a good technical reason for packing up its marbles and going home when it loses default status. But all I could find was this blanket statement in Microsoft's "Developing a Metro style enabled Desktop Browser" white paper: "A Metro style enabled desktop browser may participate in the Metro style user experience only if it is the default browser... The restriction to limit Metro style user experience participation to the user's default browser is rooted in preserving the Metro style user experience."
That statement bowls me over. It equates "preserving the Metro style user experience" with "you can only run a Metro browser if it's your default browser for all of Windows." Want to give, say, the Metro-style Chrome browser a workout? You can do it, but only after you've made Chrome your default browser. How many people are going to download Chrome, find out that it doesn't work on the Metro side, and give up?
There's the incentive. If you want to build a Windows 8 browser, it better have a Metro version. Otherwise anybody who has the temerity to make your browser the default loses all ability to browse in the Metro interface. If there's a solid technical reason for forcing all other browsers out of the Metro playground, I haven't seen it.


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