Why would you want to run a desktop browser on a tablet, anyway?

Talk to enough IT people and you'll hear the familiar refrain: "Everything new is old again."

Talk to enough IT people and you'll hear the familiar refrain: "Everything new is old again."

They usually mean that, while technology and terminology may change, many of today's issues -- security, management, empowering employees -- are the same issues from 10, 20 or even 30 years ago. But it's hard not to think about the saying in light of the news that Microsoft doesn't plan to allow third-party browsers to run in desktop mode on its new tablet operating system, Windows RT.

Firefox developer Mozilla took exception in a company blog post, and Google quickly joined the fray in support of its popular Chrome browser.  Mozilla and Google's argument essentially boils down to this: If Internet Explorer (IE) can run in desktop mode on Windows RT, then there's no technical reason why third-party browsers can't as well.

The blog post by Mozilla even prompted the European Commission and the U.S. Senate to form exploratory committees to see if Microsoft's move wasn't running afoul of the antitrust decisions (PDF) related to Microsoft's browser shenanigans in the ‘90s. The U.S. antitrust case, however, applied specifically to "Intel-compatible PC operating systems," and the decision in Europe applied to the general notion of a PC. Microsoft's argument would be that Windows RT isn't an Intel-compatible operating system, so those previous decisions do not apply.

Legalities aside, Mozilla and Google's complaints may be all for naught, for a few reasons:

  1. Much like Apple allows third-party browsers on iOS, as long as those browsers use the built-in webkit engine, Microsoft will also allow any browser on Windows RT-- at least in Metro mode -- as long as it uses Microsoft's built-in Trident engine. Third-party browsers will also be allowed on Windows 8. So people will still be able to use Firefox and Chrome on Microsoft's next operating system.
  2. None of this will matter if people don't actually buy Windows RT tablets.
  3. Tablets hold the promise of being the most personal of computers -- ones built for speed and touch. Why would anyone want to use a legacy interaction environment on a touch-enabled device?

On an iPad, trying to navigate a virtual Windows desktop, built for a mouse and keyboard, isn't the best experience. The same will probably be true for desktop mode on Windows RT tablets. The question isn't why Microsoft won't allow Firefox or Chrome to run in desktop mode on a tablet. The question is, why would you design an application to do so in the first place? Mozilla and Google -- and all developers, really -- should instead design their applications to offer the best touch-based experience.


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