27 January 2020

The Verge: “Inside Microsoft’s surprise decision to work with Google on its Edge browser”

Shortly after that meeting with Nadella, Microsoft’s browser team started to analyze everything that was wrong with Edge. It was a way to spark a discussion internally about the changes needed.

“We wrote a paper. We wrote the paper for the purpose of having a discussion at an offsite that Terry Myerson [former Windows chief] had in October of 2017”, says Belfiore.

This paper included a bunch of the benefits and drawbacks of Edge. Microsoft picked a different term for the drawbacks, though. It called them “headwinds”. It was a signal that, in 2017, the problems with Edge weren’t just technical, nor were they necessarily insurmountable. They were just — theoretically — the things that were slowing down its adoption.

Tom Warren

Yet another article I have been planning for many months; this seems like an appropriate moment to finally write it, as Microsoft announced two weeks ago that the Chromium-based version of Edge is ready for release. I have been using the dev version of the new browser since it’s been available for testing, and I am pleased to say it’s been very stable and fast. After I upgraded to Windows 10 and started using original Edge, the only reason I kept Chrome around on my main laptop has been the Send-to-Kindle extension. Because the new Edge browser can install Chrome extensions, I was able to use it almost exclusively since. Edge ships with better tracking protection built-in, another reason to prefer it to Chrome.

Still, my original reaction about the decision to switch rendering engines remains mostly unchanged – and it’s basically a spectrum of anger and disappointment. I’m angry at developers, who talk high and mighty about the need for diversity on the web, about testing websites in several browsers and using progressive enhancement whenever some features are not yet supported – but at the end of the day act lazy and complacent, and just build websites exclusively for Chrome.

I’m angry at the tech press, who constantly bashed Edge, complaining about obscure missing features that few regular users would even know about, while ignoring Edge’s advantages in power consumption and font rendering.

I’m angry at Google for their passive-aggressive tactics against browser competition, blocking, hindering, delaying other browsers from accessing Google services, promoting their own browser on the front page of Google search, tactics used before to smother Windows Phone out of the mobile OS market.

And most of all I’m angry at Microsoft for allowing this to happen. You would think that, after the failure of Windows Phone, someone inside that company would have drawn some meaningful lessons and tried to push a better strategy – apparently not. It’s painfully clear that Microsoft didn’t invest enough resources in Edge, neither internally, nor for promoting their product. I get that a large corporation has many different strategic goals, possibly of higher priority that a rendering engine, but changing course aimlessly every couple of years won’t bring much success.

What’s worse, switching to a different rendering engine doesn’t solve many of the reasons Microsoft cited for the lagging adoption of Edge! Granted, it fixes most site compatibility issues, but it doesn’t do anything to combat Google’s obstruction. In fact, even sharing Chromium, Google managed to regularly block Edge from its services or site updates – don’t expect this behavior to change anytime soon! Personally, I think the relation between the development teams from the rival companies will degrade constantly over time. I would even expect Microsoft to fork Chromium within the next 2-3 years – then again, that would require them to commit serious resources to the rendering engine, something they obviously failed to do with EdgeHTML…

Another reason for the change was a faster update cycle – something I have also mentioned as a weakness for original Edge – and the ability to launch the new browser on other platforms, like iOS, Android, and MacOS, and earlier versions of Windows. This sounds suspiciously like cyclical reasoning, since Microsoft itself decided to run Edge inside an UWP app, thus preventing distribution on other platforms. Other than lack of commitment, I see no reason why they couldn’t ship EdgeHTML in a regular Win32 application, installable on older versions of Windows. The biggest irony here is new Edge being released at the same time when support for Windows 7 ends, basically the perfect excuse to never release a Windows 7 version. And the second biggest irony is how EdgeHTML is being kept around in the background to power PWAs and store apps on Windows 10, such as Twitter. It will also remain the default browser on commercial versions of Windows, where Microsoft won’t automatically upgrade the original Edge – that’s a lot of systems left behind.

But that’s enough ranting. Hopefully the new Edge can gather some traction and challenge Google’s dominance over web browsing, but at this point I highly doubt it. Microsoft just doesn’t have the focus necessary to push a browser to succeed. I can fully understand that the company has other priorities – mainly corporate cloud customers, who won’t care about the browser running on client machines – but on the other hand, why are you even competing in this market if you’re not intent on making a difference?!

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