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.