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Ex-Mozilla engineer blames Microsoft's rules for Metro Firefox's death

Gregg Keizer | March 24, 2014
A former Mozilla engineer who worked on the "Metro" version of Firefox says that poor adoption of Windows 8's radical user interface wasn't behind the decision to shelve the browser.

A former Mozilla engineer who worked on the "Metro" version of Firefox argued yesterday that poor adoption of Windows 8's radical user interface (UI) was not the real cause of the decision to shelve the browser.

"Is Windows 8.1 'Modern' UI in trouble? No," said Brian Bondy, who led the Metro-ized Firefox development, in a post on his personal blog.

Bondy's "Modern" is another label for what Microsoft originally called "Metro," the colorful, tile-based, flat-style UI that's one of two in Windows 8 and its follow-on, Windows 8.1. The other is a more traditional desktop UI, relatively familiar to the hundreds of millions who rely on Windows 7, Vista or XP.

A week ago, Mozilla abruptly canceled the release of its touch-enabled Firefox browser for Windows 8 and 8.1, blaming the operating system and its Metro mode.

"We've been watching Metro's adoption," said Johnathan Nightingale, vice president of Firefox, in a March 14 blog. "From what we can see, it's pretty flat. On any given day we have, for instance, millions of people testing pre-release versions of Firefox desktop, but we've never seen more than 1,000 active daily users in the Metro environment."

Nightingale said that the small number of users hadn't been enough to properly test Firefox on Metro, which meant that bugs would invariably slip through the cracks and create massive work for Mozilla after its debut.

Bondy, who last week said he had left the company to join Khan Academy, defended the decision to shelve Firefox but contended it was not because of low interest and usage of the Metro UI.

"Modern UI Firefox usage, in Mozilla's measurements, is not necessarily a true reflection of Modern UI usage in general," Bondy asserted.

Instead, he blamed Microsoft's arcane rules for third-party browsers on Windows 8 and 8.1.

"Microsoft doesn't allow your browser to run in Modern UI unless you are the default browser," Bondy said. "Several people could have had Modern UI capable Firefox pre-releases installed, but just never knew it."

Making a browser the default in Windows 8 and 8.1, and thus available in the Metro UI, is harder than it should be, Bondy continued. "Before Windows 8, each browser could prompt you, and then they could set your default for you. As of Windows 8 you need to ask first, then tell Microsoft to show a prompt that shows a list of browsers," Bondy wrote.

Microsoft's rules for Metro browsers has long been panned by Mozilla, which complained in early 2012 that the Redmond, Wash. company had dragged its feet on offering information about how to craft one.

Microsoft decided that it would allow hybrid desktop-Metro apps, but limited that third category — after classic x86/64 Windows programs and Metro-only applications — to something it then called "Metro style enabled desktop browsers" and now labels with the cumbersome "new experience enabled desktop browsers" in a Word document on its support site.


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