By: Gigaom
So who picks the browser on a mobile device: You or “them”?
There's quite a ruckus going on over ARM-powered Windows 8 tablets: Mozilla and Google are crying foul over third-party browser restrictions Microsoft has put in place in Windows 8. Here's why this isn't really a new problem and why it's likely to get worse over time.

There’s quite a ruckus going on over Microsoft Windows 8 tablets that will run on ARM-based smartphone chips. Ed Bott nicely explains how both Mozilla and Google are crying foul over third-party browser restrictions that Microsoft has put in place on these tablets. Such browsers — Firefox and Chrome, to name two — won’t have access to APIs that Internet Explorer can take advantage of. According to Asa Dotzler, Mozilla’s product director for Firefox, the restrictions will ensure “there’s no way another browser can possibly compete with IE in terms of features or performance.”

How did we get here?

I can certainly understand why both companies are up in arms — no pun intended. Each has long supported an open web and have built some or all of their business with such products. Along the transition from traditional desktop to mobile computing, however, the rules have changed. Smartphones and tablets are at times are obviously considered to be portable computers, but they’re also looked upon as consumer electronic devices, which have a long, rich history of proprietary software, connectors and technologies.

Along the timeline of this change from standard computer to CE device, Apple has arguably best made the transition. The “it just works” mentality isn’t 100 percent accurate, but the latest Apple devices come closest in that regard. Think of the iPhone, iPad and even Apple TV: These aren’t just high-priced computing products; instead, you turn then on and use them just as you would a standard television set, an old VCR or an electric fan. All of the complexities inside the Apple product line are hidden by simple, intuitive controls, for example.

This isn’t a new problem

I don’t use Apple as an example to say they have the best products. Instead, it’s to show that their smartphones and tablets are more like traditional consumer electronics devices than products from most of their peers. And there’s another reason for using Apple here: For some time, Apple didn’t allow third-party browsers on its iOS devices. It does now, but they’re restricted just as Microsoft is restricting other browser capabilities in Windows 8: You can’t set a third-party browser on iOS to be the default browser, which is terribly inconvenient and likely holds back a significant amount of iOS users from using Dolphin HD or Opera to name a few.

Why is this allowed? Because Apple controls everything about its product from hardware to software to ecosystem. Perhaps you don’t like that example though. That’s fine. Consider this timely tweet from Ian Betteridge this morning because it’s spot-on in the point I’m trying to make:

Google's griping about not being able to put Chrome on Windows RT. So when will I be able to install IE on a Chromebook?—
Ian Betteridge (@ianbetteridge) May 10, 2012

The obvious answer is that you’ll never be able to install Internet Explorer — or any other third-party browser, for that matter — on a Google ChromeBook. Google developed the ChromeOS, which is essentially a Linux core that runs Google’s Chrome browser. How is that different from what Apple does or what Microsoft intends to do?

The choice is yours, but there are trade-offs involved

As a consumer, I personally like choice. It’s choice that drives some away from Apple’s iPhone, for example, and towards a phone that runs Android or some other alternative. Mobile technology however is a huge series of trade-offs because it’s so personal. If you want the rock-solid and intuitive experience from Apple, you give up some choice to gain that experience. Willing to tinker with your device so you can run any app you want and have your phone look the way you want it to? You may give up some of the polished refinement of iOS in order to get that freedom.

Unfortunately, as mobile technology intersects more with and emulates a consumer electronics mindset, some companies are going to continue to control more of the experience, and in this case that experience is web browsing. I’m not sure this is in Microsoft’s best interest, however, mainly because the company has tried tablets for over a decade with relatively little success. Simply put: it doesn’t need another potential obstacle in the way of Windows 8 tablet sales, considering the competition from and traction of Apple’s iPad.

No matter how this browser battle plays out, I’ll do what I always do. I’ll consider the overall product, look at the trade-offs made by choosing one tablet over another and simply vote with my wallet. Ultimately, you do have the choice because it’s your money to spend on the device and browser(s) you want to use.

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