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First Microsoft copied Chrome — now it’s trying to beat it

After changing the tech that powers its browser, Microsoft is giving Edge new privacy tools, smarter bookmarks and a better way to manage all those tabs you have open.

Microsoft Edge logo

Microsoft's big news today is that its Edge browser has a bunch of new features and will automatically block many trackers that follow people around the web.

Screenshot: Microsoft

Microsoft's big news today is that its Edge browser has a bunch of new features and will automatically block many trackers that follow people around the web. It's the most functional, user-friendly browser the company's ever made. Which is somewhat surprising, given that not so long ago, the company was thinking about just giving up on web browsers altogether.

A couple of years ago, it had become clear that the much-hyped Edge browser wasn't catching on; in mid-2017 Edge was significantly less popular than Internet Explorer, the browser so old and bad Microsoft built an entirely new product rather than keep upgrading it. Maybe, folks at Microsoft wondered, it was time to stop investing heavily in browsers at all.

But first, Microsoft wanted to know where it had gone wrong. So a team of product managers, designers, engineers and others went out and talked about Edge with clients from all over: schools, big businesses, small businesses, you name it. Their question was, essentially, are the browser wars over? Chrome was totally dominant — even people within Microsoft used it — and Firefox and Brave and others already made for pretty solid competition. "You look at the competitive browsers and they're good," said Chuck Friedman, a corporate vice president for Edge. "Is there going to be space for us? And what we found was really pretty energizing."

First they had to educate users that Edge even existed. Many people they spoke with, they found, thought Microsoft was asking about Internet Explorer. Once they got past that, the team heard over and over that a huge problem with Edge was that way too many sites and apps just didn't work with it. Microsoft had built Edge with proprietary infrastructure and a backward-looking eye, wanting to make sure it supported all the ancient software and systems that companies still use. But it had forgotten to support the way the web works now.

Until Microsoft fixed its compatibility issues, it knew it didn't have a chance. To do so, the Edge team decided in 2018 to turn to an unlikely place: Chromium, the open-source rendering engine that also powers Google Chrome. Chrome owns about 2/3 of the browser market, and because is so dominant, it's the first place developers check to make sure their stuff works. That meant it would all work in Edge, too. In January, after two years of work, Microsoft released its overhauled browser. It looked and worked an awful lot like Chrome.

Which brings us to the third thing people told Microsoft about browsers in general: There are lots of little things that don't work. People said it felt creepy to use the internet — they'd look at a coat on Amazon and suddenly ads for that coat followed them everywhere. They hated managing tabs, which became unusable in that top bar after a while. "What's really interesting to me is there really has been very little meaningful change in the browser space over the last 10 years," Liat Ben-Zur, Microsoft's corporate vice president for consumer, Edge and Bing, said.

So now, two months after releasing the browser it hoped would catch it up to the rest of the market, Microsoft's releasing the one it hopes will put it ahead. The pitch is basically: It's Chrome, but with more attention to privacy and a bunch of new features that make browsing easier. (Which is not so different from, say, Firefox's pitch, except in Edge's case, it's even the same tech as Chrome.) The new version of Edge includes a rethought bookmarking system through a feature called Collections that makes it easier to save groups of pages — like Pinterest but for all those flight options you've been researching — and as of today, it works on mobile too. The browser now lets users dock tabs to the left side of the screen rather than the top. It makes copying and pasting easier, too. And the new Edge offers more powerful tracking protection and a monitoring system that can alert users if their credentials have been stolen.

Microsoft is hoping its features, and its general promise of "Chrome but better and more private" will convince people to switch their browser allegiance — though not everyone agrees it's more private in the first place. For millions of Windows users, it'll be their default browser. The hope is that going forward, maybe they won't just use Edge to go download Chrome.

Microsoft's jump to Chromium has already subtly shifted the internet's power dynamic. For the first time, two of the world's largest and most influential tech companies are essentially working together on a single vision for the future of the web. Chromium's only remaining competitors are Apple's WebKit and Mozilla's Gecko rendering engines, which power Safari and Firefox. Mozilla, for one, would prefer more competition: When Microsoft announced its switch to Chromium in 2018, Mozilla's then-CEO wrote that "ceding control of fundamental online infrastructure to a single company is terrible."

Chromium is an open-source project, but it's largely controlled by Google. Or at least, people who work there. "Anyone can contribute, and anyone can make a pull request," said Bennett Cyphers, a staff technologist at the EFF, "but the vast majority of the time, it's Google people deciding what can go in, and it's Google people driving the long-term strategy." Edge and other Chromium-based browsers can decide what features to include and exclude, but they're now in a tricky position: It'll be far more work to remove and work around a feature Google implements than to just accept and implement it.

"The default is always going to be Google's choice," Cyphers said, "and other companies will have to go out of their way to reject that choice."


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In the early days of this new Edge, Microsoft removed a host of Google's features and tried to contribute its own. So far, Microsoft has made more than 2,700 contributions to the Chromium project, which will affect how the web works far beyond Microsoft's products. "Accessibility is a place where we've invested a ton," Friedman said, along with development tools. Microsoft also has lots of experience with touch-friendly browsers and is sharing that with the Chromium community.

In the long run, though, Cyphers said the question remains whether Microsoft truly wants to keep building out its own browser vision or if it will eventually let Edge become Chrome with a different icon and a different search engine.

Microsoft says it's going to continue to invest. And it maintains the choice to switch to Chromium was the right one. The Edge team knows that users want the internet to work the way the internet works best — even if it's a lot like the Google way.

Protocol | Fintech

Plaid’s COO is riding fintech’s choppy waves

He's a striking presence on the beach. If he navigates Plaid's data challenges, Eric Sager will loom large in the financial world as well.

Plaid COO Eric Sager is an avid surfer.

Photo: Plaid

Eric Sager is an avid surfer. It's a fitting passion for the No. 2 executive at Plaid, a startup that's riding fintech's rough waters — including a rogue wave on the horizon that could cause a wipeout.

As Plaid's chief operating officer, Sager has been helping the startup navigate that choppiness, from an abandoned merger with Visa to a harsh critique by the CEO of a top Wall Street bank.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
Protocol | Enterprise

Tony Bates hears the call at Genesys

Running a contact center company isn't as sexy as his previous gigs. But this company could be the best chance for him to make a lasting mark.

Tony Bates arrived at Genesys as CEO after hopscotching through various parts of the tech industry.

Photo: Genesys

Be careful what you wish for. For Tony Bates, that's been running a big tech company.

He rose to Cisco's top ranks but didn't get the No. 1 job. His big CEO break was at Skype when it was poised to go public — but months into that gig, Bates' venture backers sold it to Microsoft instead. After a stint at Microsoft, where some eyed Bates for the CEO job that went to Satya Nadella, he took over GoPro. There, he got cut in a round of layoffs as the camera company struggled. He joined Social Capital, which helped fund Slack and Box, for a gig that lasted a year before tech investor Chamath Palihapitiya blew up the venture capital firm he started.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Power

Google wants to help you get a life

Digital car windows, curved AR glasses, automatic presentations and other patents from Big Tech.

A new patent from Google offers a few suggestions.

Image: USPTO

Another week has come to pass, meaning it's time again for Big Tech patents! You've hopefully been busy reading all the new Manual Series stories that have come out this week and are now looking forward to hearing what comes after what comes next. Google wants to get rid of your double-chin selfie videos and find things for you as you sit bored at home; Apple wants to bring translucent displays to car windows; and Microsoft is exploring how much you can stress out a virtual assistant.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

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