Microsoft Retools Its Edge Browser, But Internet Explorer Is Forever

This post was originally published on this site

In 2015, Microsoft introduced Edge, a homegrown browser it pitched as a modernized successor to Internet Explorer, and capable competitor to Google Chrome. Just three years later, Microsoft has raised a white flag, opting to rebuild Edge on Chromium, the same open-source rendering engine used by Chrome. As for Internet Explorer? Two years after its stopped getting feature updates, it’s still more popular than Edge ever was.

Plenty has been written about why Edge is making the jump, including by Microsoft Windows lead Joe Belfiore. “Ultimately, we want to make the web experience better for many different audiences,” Belfiore wrote in a blog post announcing the change, arguing that users, web developers, and corporate IT departments will all benefit from coalescing around Chromium. The shorter version may simply be that even three years in, even being bundled with Windows 10, precious few people were using Edge. Especially compared to Internet Explorer.

Chrome dominates the desktop browser space, notching over 60 percent market share over the last year or more. But in November of this year—as in, about a week ago—second place went to Internet Explorer, at a hair over 11 percent. But that’s just desktop, you say. Fair enough! But even when you combine mobile, tablet, and desktop traffic, at least one metric slots IE in third place, accounting for about 10 percent of users. Edge? It’s at 4.5 percent on a good day. You’ve already done the math, but just to stress the point: That’s less than half the market share of a browser that’s been frozen in time since Castle was canceled.

The enduring popularity of Internet Explorer has long been a handy punchline. But it can also tell you a lot about why Edge failed to take off, and Microsoft’s latest moves might finally convince people to leave their zombie browser for dead.

One of Us

The first thing to know about Internet Explorer diehards: They’re maybe not who you expect. Yes, they include the technophobes who haven’t installed an update since Windows XP. (No judgment here, just anxiety over how much malware lurks inside those Dell Inspirons by now.) But they also include a surprising number of corporate IT departments, who either lack the option or the inclination to move on.

“Historically, because of legacy applications or even third-party applications, including some of Microsoft’s own applications, they only really work well with Internet Explorer, they don’t necessarily work with Firefox or Chrome very well,” says Peter Tsai, senior technology analyst with Spiceworks, a network for IT professionals. “There were some reports of Edge in its early days not working well with services, especially Office 365, which you would think they would have tested extensively.” Edge in the early days struggled with critical Microsoft programs like Intune, as well, making enterprise IT departments anxious about embracing it.

But even if Edge had worked seamlessly with those applications, it’s only been available on Windows 10. More than 700 million devices run Microsoft’s most recent operating system version, but that’s still only good for less than half of Windows PCs. In fact, some market share trackers still put Windows 7 ahead of Windows 10, representing hundreds of millions of machines that couldn’t get Edge even if they wanted it.

Which makes one aspect of Microsoft’s announcement Thursday particularly underrated. The shift to Chromium will enable it to bring Edge not just to macOS, but also to Windows 7 and Windows 8. Those stuck on Internet Explorer by virtue of being stuck on Windows 7—which, again, isn’t always obstinance; lots of companies run on software that’s only compatible with older operating systems—will finally have the option to switch over to Edge.

And if they do, they should find a much-improved experience after the transition takes place. Web developers largely build pages for Chrome these days, and don’t pay much mind to the quirks and needs of the fifth-biggest browser. But the Chromium switch means Edge can hitch its wagon to Chrome’s star. “People using Microsoft Edge (and potentially other browsers) will experience improved compatibility with all web sites, while getting the best-possible battery life and hardware integration on all kinds of Windows devices,” Belfiore wrote.

Live Forever

All of which should help put a dent in IE’s continued dominance. But even then, maybe not a huge one. Those same users, after all, could already have made the jump to Firefox or Chrome, but have chosen not to. It turns out inertia’s more powerful a draw than even the handiest browser extensions.

“In many cases, because Internet Explorer was the default, it was the path of least resistance. A lot of people are just accustomed to using IE. There were some major interface changes in Edge that might have made it unattractive to some users,” says Tsai. “IT departments don’t want to have to retrain users. They don’t want to have a flood of help desk tickets asking them how to do common stuff that they used to know how to do.”

That means IE might be with us for as long as it’s an option—which might be a while. Microsoft stopped offering improvements in 2016, but true obsolescence will only come when it cuts off the security updates and technical support. Microsoft has promised to prop up IE throughout the lifecycle of Windows 10—which means IE could be with us, browsing the web with undead aplomb, for as long as seven more years, until October 2025.

Yes, the fate of Microsoft Edge matters. It’s fascinating for a host of business and technical reasons. But remember, too, that it’s not even Microsoft’s most important browser. And it likely won’t be for years.


More Great WIRED Stories