We live in interesting times. Times where Google technology is powering a Microsoft browser. A few years back, people would have laughed at the mere mention of this possibility.
Yet here we are.
Microsoft Edge, the new browser from the company that debuted as a Windows 10 exclusive, has now transitioned to the Chromium technology. This is the same open-source project that the Google Chrome browser is built on. Microsoft spent months working on this, replacing everything under the hood.
Time to take a detailed look at what this surprising little change means for you as a Windows user in general, and Edge user in particular.
Chromium, Edge, wait, what?
If you are asking what timeline is this, then you’re not alone! Many were surprised by Microsoft’s decision to ditch its own technology and rebuild its shiny new browser using technology pioneered by Google , its fiercest competitor.
And they had every right to be, considering just how much time and effort the Windows maker had poured into developing and promoting Microsoft Edge.
Edge was powered by EdgeHTML, now a discontinued browser engine technology written in C++ for Windows 10. This was a fork of the Trident engine that has been doing the heavy lifting for Internet Explorer for close to 21 years.
Microsoft threw out this two-decade old legacy of developing its own engine when it announced late last year that it plans to rebuild Edge as a Chromium browser.
In doing so, it became one of the many vendors that use the codebase to build their own browsers using the Chromium technology. These include mobile and desktop applications like Amazon Silk, Brave, Opera, Vivaldi, and many smaller implementations.
Before we get any further, let’s spend a minute on finding out what a browser engine exactly is.
What is a Browser Engine?
The purpose of a web browser is simple enough. And that is, to fetch information resources from the web and display them for a user on his or her device. The browser engine is the rendering engine that displays this information, everything from text, images, and documents to audio and video.
This core software component of every major web browser is what transforms web resources like HTML documents to the interactive visual representation that you see.
Or, are seeing, in this case.
Getting back to Chromium, this open source project is more than a suite of web technologies pioneered by Google. It’s a fully functional web browser on its own that you can download and run on your device, though it has fewer features than the mainline Google Chrome. It misses things like an integrated Adobe Flash Player, APIs for certain Google services, the ability to automatically update itself, as well as tracking for usage and crash reports.
Important distinction to make her is that Chromium is actually the name of the project.
Edge was the replacement for the good old Internet Explorer, but it was not always meant to be. In fact, Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer in the OS when it launched Windows 8, the first modern iteration of its operating system.
Internet Explorer 10 was included as both a desktop program and a touch-optimized app. It had improvements across the board like increased support for HTML5, CSS3, hardware acceleration. Even the integrated Adobe Flash Player in IE was optimized for touch and low power usage.
Did not take the company long to realize that it should have started fresh, and gone in with a totally modern new solution for this new platform.
Microsoft Edge soon entered the scene, signaling a fresh new beginning for Microsoft web browsers. But growing pains, particularly the lackluster user interface and lack of extensions, meant that people did not really take to this new solution.
Instead of user migrating to the new browser, both IE and Edge started losing users, with the bulk of them shifting to, you guessed it, Google Chrome.
Something had to be done.
A necessary change
The year is 2012, and the going has gotten tough for Microsoft browsers. Third-party data from sources like NetMarketShare and StatCounter reveals that the Google browser now basically unstoppable, its rise unbeatable.
The looming retirement of Internet Explorer, combined with the jaded uptake of Edge, handed the advantage to Chrome. It never looked back, cornering the browser market all by itself. It was during this time that Chrome leaped ahead of all the competitors on the market, including both the Microsoft browsers and the fan-favorite Firefox.
Things became even more convoluted when the Redmond-based company decided to not make Edge available for users running the older versions of its OS, like Windows 7 and 8. Not only did this have a very negative impact on the market share, it also meant that Edge users were deprived of cross-platform features like syncing — a staple on competing solutions.
To make matters worse, Microsoft only updated Edge twice a year, as part of the biyearly Windows 10 feature updates. In comparison, browsers like Chrome and Firefox were updated every few months, with their respective development teams better able to iterate on features and options.
That’s no way to run a browser business.
No wonder Edge stagnated.
But the winds of change have already started to blow.
Latest estimates from NetMarketShare for this month show that while Google Chrome is the leading browser on the desktop with a share of 65.64%, it is down for the first time. It had 67.88% next to its name at the start of April.
Sign that people are already switching to the new Chromium-based Microsoft Edge.
Necessary as it was, not everyone is pleased with this switch. The maker of Firefox openly criticized this move terming it bad for the Internet.
Mozilla CEO Chris Beard said that Microsoft’s decision to use Chromium and the Blink rendering engine has handed Google a monopoly on the web.
Not only is there one less competitor in the browser space, it also grows the Chromium market share. Web developers will no longer test their apps against anything else, with Beard going so far as to compare this to the monopoly Microsoft enjoyed for its browser in the early 2000s.
Ultimately, while competition is good, fact remains that Edge really wasn’t going anywhere. It never became the browser Microsoft wanted it to be, failed to be relevant, did nothing to shape the industry.Truth is, with Internet Explorer all set for retirement, Microsoft had little choice.
And no room for error.
Meet the new Microsoft Edge
The new Microsoft Edge is more than just another Chromium clone. The browsing experience may be exactly the same as in Chrome, but there is a layer of Microsoft on top of it. And that is what sets it apart from other choices — particularly for users entrenched in the Windows ecosystem.
This is how the new Edge looks:
We have put together an image gallery of this new Microsoft Edge in all its glory:
As you can see, a lot of the design language and UI elements like icons have remained how they were before. This familiarity is important for the current users of the browser. At the same time, this new Edge also shares some similarity with Google Chrome.
How to download the new Edge browser?
Microsoft followed its original December announcement of the engine change by kicking off a preview program that let users be part of the quality assurance for the new browser. The Edge Insider Program was unveiled when barely two weeks had passed after the official announcement.
This April, the program was opened to everyone, and Edge previews were available for anyone to download and test. Since then, the program has seen massive growth, with interested users signing up in droves to test this new Edge during its development.
The program has been divided things into three channels — Canary, Dev, and Beta.
Canary Channel is the one that is updated daily with new builds, while builds land in the Dev Channel on a weekly basis. The Beta Channel is expected to be updated every six weeks, though as of this writing, it is listed as coming soon.
Currently, the new browser is only available for Windows 10, both 32-bit and 64-bit variants. You can head on over to the Download page to grab the installer. A native ARM64 build is also in the pipeline, for owners of devices based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon processors.
Although the latest OS is the only one that is formally supported, folks have been able to run the new Edge perfectly fine on older versions of the operating system. Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 8.1, and macOS versions are coming soon, though, with hints that the macOS version will be next to go live.
As for the when this new flavor of Edge will be officially available, Microsoft is yet to provide an official release date, or even an estimate window for that matter. But it is expected that the premiere version will be finalized sometimes later this year.
A summer 2019 release is a good bet.
What to expect from this new Edge?
A lot. This Chromium-based Edge browser appears to be exactly what so many users expected Microsoft to deliver. That is, a competent application that has more or less the same functionality as rivals, but with some unique features of its own.
Not to mention superior media handling compared to the competition, and being a tad more secure.
Expectations are now high, after this engine change. And the positive results are already showing. The community continues to share its experiences of giving up Google Chrome and moving to Edge, even during this early stage of development.
As for what you can expect from Microsoft’s shiny new browser, here’s a quick rundown:
- Core strengths: There are some things that Microsoft is already committed to with Edge, things like better battery life and support for touch. Features like these will continue to be the differentiating factor for this new breed of the Edge browser too.
- Speed and performance: Microsoft’s expertise with hardware means that the new Edge has all the makings of a highly optimized program that runs well on a wide variety of devices. Particularly when it comes to video and media playback, including 4K Netflix
- Windows integration: The close integration with the operating system ensures that Edge will readily pick up on native OS features like live tiles, richer notifications, Cortana. This alone sets it apart from the competition.
- Incoming features: Although this new version is missing out on a fair few things, Microsoft has, over the course of the past few months, confirmed that it is working on features like dark mode, reading view, grammar tool, translation, smooth scrolling, and accessibility improvements.
- Support for Chrome extensions: There’s a whole world of extensions that are available for Google Chrome, and Microsoft intends to support them. This likely doesn’t meant that all Chrome extensions will be made available for Edge. Instead, the company will continue curating these extensions like before, and only make a selection up for grabs.
- PWAs: Progress Web App seem to be all the rage these days, with companies shifting to this strategy left and right. The new Edge will, obviously, offer support for PWAs. Furthermore, these applications will show up in the top level of the Start Menu.
- Ports: Microsoft also plans to bring the new browser to all Microsoft devices, including the Xbox One and maybe even some Windows phones.
One remaining piece of the Edge puzzle is EdgeHTML, which will not disappear overnight.
Existing UWP applications, including web apps, will continue to be able to use this engine. Since Microsoft offers a new WebView based on Chromium, the two technology will remain in parallel, and developers will be able to use whichever one they want.
An important consideration for enterprise software, and applications that rely on the old engine.
Features not available on Edge
Regression. It’s a plague that has haunted the software industry for ages now. Old features are rarely carrier over into the new generation, and this is true for most application. Things change, new technologies are developed, old ones fade away.
Not only will this new Chromium-powered Edge will miss out on some of its own features, many options that are part of Google Chrome will be also be turned off and made unavailable.
Sad, yet understandable.
Things like inking support on Edge are the first causality. We may see it added back few months down the road, but this marquee feature of the old Edge is nowhere to be seen in the new one.
Another feature that you should not expect to see in this Chromium-coated Edge is the ability to read ebooks. Microsoft recently confirmed that it was discontinuing the books section in the Microsoft Store, with the demise of this feature effective immediately.
So that’s two big features, two big selling points of the old Edge, gone, just like that. There are a bunch more features like this that are missing.
And as for Chrome features, this PowerPoint slide leaked by a regular Microsoft watcher WalkingCat notes a whole bunch of Google features that Microsoft turned off or replaced. Most of these were related to Google services like Google Now, Google Print, Chrome OS device management, and so on.
Huge list, as you can see above.
But the Edge team seems to be aiming to get the basics down right now, and work towards implementing a Fluent Design UI for its new browser. It will have all the time in the world to catch up on features, once the groundwork is properly laid.
Still, if you are a heavy user of web browsers, do know that a substantial number of features will not be available on this new Edge right off the bat.
In with a chance
At the end of the day, it all comes down to market share. There are browsers that offer better feature sets or improved privacy than Google Chrome, but it sits on the throne for a reason. Of course, that’s not to say that this success was not built on the massive improvements both Google and Mozilla provided to Chrome and Firefox users.
And this is something Microsoft wants, and may well be able to, replicate.
Even though Internet Explorer reigned supreme as the world’s number one desktop browser for a long time, IE never was the favorite for everyone. Many used it for work, or because it came bundled with Windows, and certain apps made use of Internet Explorer.
That is why folks were quick to embrace the alternatives that hit the market.
Sure, Edge turned out to be just another failed experiment, not much different than the Metro flavored Internet Explorer in Windows 8. Just like all recent Microsoft browsers, it eventually failed to make any difference in the browser space, even considering all the significant improvements the company released over the years.
But there are a number of solid reasons why Microsoft now has a big chance to win the browser market, and Edge is in with a chance to lead on both desktop and mobile.
- The best feature set: Being based on Chromium, Edge technically has all the notable features that Chrome boasts of, and then some. Microsoft can give these features and options its own unique touches, and tailor the feature set specifically to match its user base.
- World’s largest distribution platform: Say what you may about Windows, it continues to chug along towards its goal of powering a billion devices. The potential for Microsoft to target such a large audience with a modern and capable browser is immense.
- Cross-platform availability: The switch to the new engine finally allows Microsoft to enlarge its footprint and release Edge on more platforms than just Windows 10. Not only should the arrival on other variants of Windows help significantly increase the user base, but also offer an incentive for macOS and Linux users to give it a try.
- Support for extensions: Ask Mozilla, and they’ll tell you of the importance of having a vibrant ecosystem of addons, plugins and extensions. Going with Chromium may have been a controversial choice in some respects, but it finally means that Edge users will not be left out in the cold when it comes to extensions that they can add to their web browser.
Microsoft may be framing this big change as a way to decrease fragmentation, and make the Internet more compatible for everyone. But Windows users will, indubitably, be the big winners here. They will get a really capable browser that is delivered and updated for all supported versions of the OS.
And there’s an even bigger picture here.
By joining the Chromium project, Microsoft will also be able to contribute, and bring top features to the project, which can then be picked up other browser makers, including Google. Proof being in the pudding, the smooth scrolling feature that was developed by engineers at Microsoft, and will soon be available for all Chromium browsers. There are bound to be many such improvements, now that Microsoft has joined the party.
All this is, admittedly, a lot to absorb. Many a thing will change between now and final release of this new web browser. A fair bit will also change after its official release. But we can expect Microsoft to continue to refine not just Edge, but the Chromium project itself.
What certainly is one of the biggest switches in the software world, may end up being one that finally enables Microsoft Edge to achieve the success Microsoft originally envisioned.
And for you, this change in engine may well be the catalyst to give Edge a try, if you are yet to.