Microsoft spent the last year giving its Edge software a browser brain transplant, and now the company is convinced it’s smart enough to help everyone who uses it. Microsoft stripped the beta label from the browser on Wednesday, and you can now download it from Microsoft’s Edge website.
Introduced in 2015, Edge was part of a modernization effort that stripped out old Internet Explorer code. The software giant couldn’t couldn’t keep the browser compatible with enough websites, however, and customers started dumping it.
The new version of Edge marks a fundamental change in the browser: a shift to Chromium, Google’s open-source foundation for the Chrome browser. Using Chromium resolves those compatibility problems. The new version of the browser has a different logo — a circular crashing wave tinted blue, green and aqua that’s reminiscent of the old blue IE “e” icon.
“The new Microsoft Edge is now available to download on all supported versions of Windows and MacOS in more than 90 languages,” Joe Belfiore, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Windows, said in a blog post. Microsoft isn’t yet pushing the software to your PC.
Shifting to Chromium — a decision already made by developers of Samsung, Brave, Vivaldi, Opera and others — adds even more influence to Google’s vision for the web. Those allies collaborate with Google, but Google still holds outsized influence compared with the remaining browser engines, Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari. Some bemoan the loss of Microsoft’s independent influence, but the practical reality is that it held minimal sway. More and more, it’s Google’s web, and we’re just living in it.
If you’re like most people, you probably aren’t noticing web compatibility problems because you’re already using Chrome. Chrome dominates browser usage, accounting for 64% of web activity, according to analytics firm StatCounter.
So why switch to Edge? Two reasons, in Microsoft’s view: productivity and privacy.
Microsoft’s Edge sales pitch
Productivity is represented by features like Collections, which lets you amass information from lots of websites as you’re planning travel, researching a paper or otherwise digging deeper into the web. Edge also dovetails with Microsoft’s sign-in technology used in businesses so your Edge login information is the same as your email.
As for privacy, Edge is taking a similar approach to Mozilla’s Firefox by trying to block a list of known sites that track you online. It’s related to Apple’s anti-tracking technology already in Safari and Brave, too. Google’s Chrome is the laggard here, but Google is ramping up its browser privacy effort. So Edge’s privacy protections don’t lift it above the crowd, at least for now.
For now, Microsoft is aiming Edge mostly at commercial customers, where IT managers like its integration with Microsoft management tools and its compatibility with ancient website tools that require IE and haven’t been updated for the modern browsing era. It also shows you likely Office documents of interest on your new-tab page and integrates with Bing searches to surface other information from employers that use Microsoft’s software suite.
Edge tests with mainstream consumers
But in the next two to three weeks, Microsoft will start sending out the new Edge to Windows Insiders — people who’ve signed up to test Microsoft’s upcoming software before it’s final — along with a few ordinary consumers via its Windows Update service. That push will be accompanied in coming months by explanations of what’s going on, since many customers have no idea Microsoft is rebuilding Edge, and they won’t recognize the new icon.
“We will start to migrate Windows 10 customers to the new Microsoft Edge in the coming weeks, starting with a subset of Windows Insiders in the Release Preview ring,” said Kyle Pflug, an Edge senior product manager, in a blog post Wednesday. “Enterprise and education users will not be automatically upgraded at this time.”
Over time, Microsoft will continue to flesh out Edge’s features, giving it new ways to stand out. Today there are just a few, like the ability to watch 4K Netflix video (on Windows 10 only) or to annotate PDFs with a stylus. On Apple’s higher-end MacBook Pros, Edge also takes advantage of the Touch Bar by showing a strip of favicons, those little icons websites use to identify themselves. Microsoft also plans other Touch Bar features for Edge, like showing a miniature video window.
In the bygone days under Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s Windows operating system and apps went hand in hand. IE and Edge worked only on Windows, for example. Under CEO Satya Nadella’s leadership, Microsoft has embraced the multiplatform reality of today’s computing world. Leaning on Google’s Chromium project helped Microsoft span Windows, MacOS, Android and iOS.
It also means Edge will run on Windows 7. The old Edge required Windows 10. However, Microsoft ceased offering Windows 7 technical support and security fixes this week, except to some business customers with special contracts. Millions still use Windows 7, but the number is declining.
Before concluding Edge was ready for prime time, Microsoft had to convince itself that the software was stable and had the minimum set of required features. It needed an engineering system that was fast enough at pulling in Chromium software to respond to security problems.
It’s not perfect, though. Microsoft has flagged a problem some people are having with the browser interface using the wrong language. One Edge engineer, Eric Lawrence, offered a tip for setting the correct language, and Pflug pointed to another.
And it had to have faith its developer tools could handle the difficulties of churning out Edge updates every six weeks — the speed at which Google updates Chrome.
That pace is a lot faster than the twice-yearly changes that Microsoft previously issued to its browser along with Windows updates. But the faster cycle means new features can emerge rapidly and that customers get a stream of smaller changes instead of less frequent, more disruptive big ones.
If you want a taste of those changes, you can try Microsoft’s test versions of Edge — Beta, Dev, and Canary. They’re available on the Microsoft Edge Insider site.