A Potential Windows 8 Caveat: Alternate Browsers in Metro

Microsoft has been showing off developer previews of Windows 8 lately, with it’s new multitouch “Metro” UI. The idea behind Metro is to have a tablet-friendly interface that boots quickly, with an option to switch into the traditional desktop interface.

Metro apps, from what I’ve heard, will be built with HTML5 and Silverlight rather than being native apps. This comes in handy, as Microsoft is fracturing their platform a bit. Some Windows 8 devices will run on Intel’s x86 architecture as before, but Microsoft plans for a lot of the new tablets to be ARM-based. That will create a lot of software incompatibility, as applications will need to be re-compiled for ARM processors. (So don’t buy an ARM-based computer if you want to run Photoshop on it…)

Now, we can probably assume that most people will spend a lot of time in Metro, right? It seems like a convenient tool for casual computing, and certainly better-suited for touch-enabled devices. If you need to look something up quickly, you boot your machine to the Metro interface, click on the Internet Explorer icon and head over to Wikipedia, right? That raises one very important question:

Can you replace Internet Explorer 10 with Firefox, Chrome or Opera? If Metro applications have to be written in HTML5 and Silverlight, the browsers would certainly need to be re-written, assuming that you can even build a browser with such limited tools. And will Microsoft even allow you to move that big IE tile off the primary screen?

I hope Microsoft addresses this, because it seems rather anti-competitive to me, with their large market share and all. A return to the dark days between the death of Netscape Navigator and the birth of Firefox, if you will. Web standards and browser innovation basically stagnated for a decade until the open source cavalry arrived.

Update: Apparently Microsoft has partially addressed this at the Build conference. Metro applications will be written with a new API called WinRT that will also be available in C++/C#/VB/etc.. So browsers will have to be rewritten for the new UI, but they won’t be excluded.