Like to pick your browser? Beware, because new mobile devices threaten to stifle the competitive vigor of the market for Web browsers on PCs.
On personal computers running Windows, Macs, and Linux, you can pick from a variety of browsers, finding the best combination of user interface, performance, expansion, customization, and other attributes.

There are real differences between browsers, and the shifting share of browser usage shows that millions of people aren’t content with whatever came with their computers. IE6 security flaws getting you down? Firefox to the rescue! Firefox seeming bloated? Chrome to the rescue! Chrome invading your privacy? Try Opera!

But on a host of devices ranging from today’s iPhones to tomorrow’s Windows RT tablets, though, things are very different. The idea that the browser is a feature of the operating system — an idea Microsoft floated to defend against an antitrust attack in the 1990s regarding the link between Internet Explorer and Windows — has boomeranged back.

Although many new devices technically can accommodate other browsers besides those that come with the operating system, those third-party browsers won’t always get the full privileges and thus power of the built-in browser.

That restriction could well mean that the only opportunity you’ll get to truly change browsers is when your two-year smartphone contract expires or you decide it’s worth shelling out another few hundred dollars for a new tablet.

The organization that cares the most about this matter is Mozilla, whose founding purpose is to keep the Web open and whose Firefox browser is today at a significant disadvantage when it comes to spreading beyond personal computers. Consequently, it’s leading the charge to preserve browser choice.

“Today’s Web is the product of strong browser competition on performance, stability, and feature set,” said Johnathan Nightingale, senior director of Firefox engineering. “The more we live on the Web, the more essential it is that people have the ability to choose the browser that puts them in control, and answers their needs.”

Most smartphone users stick with the browser that came with their device. But perhaps, next time you’re in the market for an electronic gizmo, you should consider whether you want one that lets you change browsers if you want. That flexibility complicates device design but offers real benefits in a world where people spend more and more of their computing time in a browser.

Here are examples of browser restrictions that have arrived on newer devices:

  • On iOS devices, Apple permits only its own version of the WebKit browser engine. Technically other browsers besides Safari are allowed, but they must use Apple’s technology for actually rendering Web pages.
  • Microsoft wants a similar approach on Windows RT, the version of Microsoft’s storied operating system for devices using low-power, mobile-friendly ARM processors.
  • On Windows Phone 7, Internet Explorer is built in, but other browsers don’t get its privileges.
  • On Google’s Chrome OS, the browser is the operating system. Linux lurks beneath, but all the applications run on the browser, and that browser is Chrome.
  • Mozilla’s Boot to Gecko (B2G) project takes a similar approach as Chrome OS, only for mobile phones. Mozilla naturally uses the Gecko browser engine that’s the foundation of Firefox.

Many other areas are likely candidates for restricted browser choice: automobiles, game consoles, TVs, set-top boxes, and whatever other future devices that will plug into the Internet.

Some electronics systems are “embedded” computing devices, generally geared for a specific task rather than for general-purpose computing. There, a built-in browser is to be expected with today’s technology.

But it’s likely in the future that single-purpose devices will become general-purpose devices — quite possibly using today’s mobile OS families. Indeed, it would be a surprise if Apple TV, Google TV, and Xbox products steered clear of Apple, Google, and Microsoft software environments.

Why restrict choice?

There are real technical reasons that curtailing browser privileges can makes sense.

That’s because browsers are, in effect, becoming operating systems unto themselves in many ways. They run applications, they manage memory, they juggle among jobs with multitasking architecture, they store data, and increasingly, they interact with lower-level hardware such as graphics chips and accelerometers. Web applications generally run with restricted privileges within that browser, but they still can consume a lot of processing power and potentially open up new avenues for malware attacks.