If Microsoft doesn’t loosen up, Firefox won’t be the last to abandon it

Firefox felt caged in.
Firefox felt caged in.
Image: Reuters/Alexander Demianchuk
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This post has been corrected.

In an announcement on March 14, Mozilla’s vice president, Johnathan Nightingale, announced that he had pulled the plug on the Windows Modern version of his company’s popular Firefox web browser, citing evidence that nobody is using that version of the product. Mozilla’s withdrawal is yet another vote of no-confidence in Windows Modern, part of a broader chorus of discontent surrounding the venerable operating system’s current incarnation.

Microsoft has always wanted to be your favorite software developer, and in the past it achieved this by gobbling up or freezing out competitors. Cold shoulder-warfare worked well when the tech world revolved around Microsoft. However, a strategy of obstructing non-Microsoft applications (whether real or accidental) is going to starve the company of what it needs most: users who still think the company is relevant.

Microsoft Modern, formerly known as Metro, is a “unified design interface” that is supposed to create a consistent Windows experience across phone, tablet, and desktop platforms. Like all things Microsoft, it’s also been a magnet for criticism, especially for its app store, which has limited outside offerings and watered-down versions of all the apps you’d rather have. We have reached out to Microsoft for a comment, and will update this post with its response. 

Mozilla’s move probably has less to do with Firefox’s popularity and more with the fact that Windows Modern is an inhospitable environment for new apps. ”At first, it looked like we would be locked out completely,” Nightingale said in his statement, describing the efforts of his “Metro team.” “We eventually broke open Metro (though never the RT line of ARM-based products) and we got to work.” But eventually, he concluded, “When I talk about the need to pick our battles, this feels like a bad one to pick: significant investment and low impact.”

As tech blogger Paul Thurrott points out (last paragraph), the problem is that Microsoft has made it hard for developers to test their products on the platform. This could be one of Microsoft’s famous bureaucratic kinks working its way into the development cycle—or, cynics might say, a sinister plot to make sure that apps developed outside Microsoft will always be inferior to those made in-house. Either way, the path feels similar to the forced adoption Microsoft used to make Internet Explorer the top web browser back in the 1990s.

Remember the browser wars? Back then, Microsoft and Netscape were battling for the hearts, minds, and clicks of the the world wide web. Microsoft eventually won with its browser, Internet Explorer, because almost every computer back then was running Windows. The company simply froze out Netscape by making it really hard to install the browser on its machines. Netscape eventually folded, but not before making its code open-source. In 2002, Firefox was released, designed by thousands of collaborating coders from the ashes of Netscape Navigator.

It’s now the world’s third most popular browser, and don’t believe for a minute that its pulling away from Microsoft is going to consign it to the same fate as Netscape. Instead, Microsoft is the one that should be worrying: If a company like Mozilla believes that compatibility with Windows Modern is not a prerequisite for success, then Microsoft would do well to understand why. The last thing Microsoft needs is to be alienating itself from developers, even if they are creating competing applications.

Microsoft is no longer the best at anything that matters. But the company is still important because it made computers accessible to a generation of people, and many of those people are still habitual users. But they will want access to the best apps, and if Microsoft Modern becomes a hostile environment for non-native applications, the company risks losing them. Freezing out competitors won’t work like it did in the 1990s, because the tech world no longer has a center. Nowadays, closing the door to the outside is the surest way to choke on your own fumes.

Correction: An earlier version of this story implied that Mozilla was pulling support for all Windows versions of its browser. It is only withdrawing support for the touch-based browser for Windows Modern.