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May 25, 2019
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Microsoft Edge

Microsoft’s Chromium-based Edge browser will get new privacy controls, IE mode and Collections

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Microsoft today announced a number of new features for its new Chromium-based Edge browser, which saw its first public release only a few weeks ago. One of these features addresses some worries from business customers, who need compatibility with the old pre-Edge Internet Explorer, in addition to new privacy controls and an interesting new take on bookmarks.

The feature that users will likely care most about here is Collections, which Microsoft describes as a way to address “the information overload customers feel with the web today.” With Collections, users can collect, organize and share content from across the web. This feature will also offer an integration with Microsoft’s Office suite, though the details of how this will work remain unclear.

On the privacy front, Microsoft announced that the new Edge will get three privacy settings: unrestricted, balanced and strict. These settings will influence how third parties will be able to track you across the web.

As far as IE mode goes, this feature shows that Microsoft is still haunted by the legacy of a browser it first launched in 1995 and replaced by the first version of Edge in 2015. Too many businesses still rely on legacy applications that only run on Internet Explorer, so with this IE mode in Edge, users will be able to open legacy sites in what is essentially an IE tab in the new browser.

It still feels weird to say this, but Edge moving to Chromium is probably the most exciting thing to happen to browsers in this space in a long time. Instead of having to focus on trying to make all of the moving parts of the browser engine work, Microsoft now has a chance to put its considerable engineering force to actually develop innovative features for users and, by extension, force its competitors to innovate as well. That vision is slowly coming together now that the company has a stable platform to work from.

For now, this is all Windows 10-only, though. While some expected Microsoft to start releasing the macOS and Linux versions of the new Edge at its Build developer conference today, that did not happen.

Here’s the first official preview of Microsoft’s Chromium-based Edge browser

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Microsoft today launched the first official version of its Edge browser with the Chromium engine for Windows 10. You can now download the first developer and canary builds here. The canary builds will get daily updates and the developer builds will see weekly updates. Over time, you’ll also be able to opt in to the beta channel and, eventually, the stable channel.

The company first announced this project last December and the news obviously created quite a stir, given that Microsoft was abandoning its own browser engine development in favor of using an open-source engine — and one that is still very much under the control of Google. With that, we’re now down to two major browser engines: Google’s Chromium and Mozilla’s Gecko.

I used the most recent builds for the last week or so. Maybe the most remarkable thing about using Microsoft’s new Chromium-based Edge browser is how unremarkable it feels. It’s a browser and it (with the exceptions of a few bugs you’d expect to see in a first release) works just like you’d expect it to. That’s a good thing, in that if you’re a Windows user, you could easily use the new Edge as your default browser and would be just fine. On the other hand — at least at this stage of the project — there’s also very little that differentiates Edge with Chromium from Google’s own Chrome browser.

That will change over time, though, with more integrations into the Windows ecosystem. For now, this is very much a first preview and meant to give web and extensions developers a platform for testing their sites and tools.

There are a few points of integration with Microsoft’s other services available already, though. Right now, when you install the Edge preview builds, you get the option to choose your new tab layout. The choices are a very simple new tab layout that only presents a search bar and a few bookmarks and a variation with a pretty picture in the background, similar to what you’d see on Bing. There is, however, also another option that highlights recent news from Microsoft News, with the option to personalize what you see on that page.

Microsoft also says that it plans to improve tab management and other UI features as it looks at how it can differentiate its browser from the rest.

In this first preview, some of the syncing features are also already in place, but there are a few holes here. So while bookmarks sync, extensions, your browsing history, settings, open tabs, addresses and passwords do not. That’ll come in some of the next builds, though.

Right now, the only search engine that’s available is Bing. That, too, will obviously change in upcoming builds.

Microsoft tells me that it prioritized getting a full end-to-end browser code base to users and setting up the engineering systems that will allow it to both push regular updates outside of the Windows update cycle and to pull in telemetry data from its users.

Most of the bugs I encountered where minor. Netflix, though, regularly gave me trouble. While all other video services I tried worked just fine, the Netflix homepage often stuttered and became unresponsive for a few seconds.

That was the exception, though. In using the new Edge as my default browser for almost a week, I rarely ran into similar issues and a lot of things ‘just work’ already. You can read PDFs in the browser, just like you’d expect. Two-factor authentication with a Yubikey to get into Gmail works without an issue. Even complex web apps run quickly and without any issues. The extensions I regularly use, including LastPass, worked seamlessly, no matter whether I installed them from the Google store or Microsoft’s library.

I also ran a few benchmarks and unsurprisingly, Edge and the latest version of Chrome tend to score virtually the same results. It’s a bit too early in the development process to really focus on benchmarks, but the results are encouraging.

With this release, we’re also getting our first official look at using extensions in the new Edge. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft will offer its own extension store, but with the flip of a switch in the settings, you’ll also be able to install and use extensions from third-party marketplaces, meaning the Chrome Web Store. Extension developers who want to add their tools to the Microsoft marketplace can basically take their existing Chrome extensions and use those

Microsoft’s promise, of course, is that it will also bring the new Edge to Windows 7 and Windows 8, as well as the Mac. For now, though, this first version is only available on 64-bit versions of Windows 10. Those are in the works, but Microsoft says they simply aren’t quite as far along as the Windows 10 edition. This first release is also English-only, with localized versions coming soon, though.

While anybody can obviously download this release and give it a try, Microsoft stressed that if you’re not a tech enthusiast, it really isn’t for you. This first release is very much meant for a technical audience. In a few months, though, Microsoft will surely start launching more fully-featured beta versions and by that time, the browser will likely be ready for a wider audience. Still, though, if you want to give it a try, nobody is stopping you today, no matter your technical expertise.

Microsoft Edge goes Chromium (and macOS)

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The rumors were true: Microsoft Edge is moving to the open-source Chromium platform, the same platform that powers Google’s Chrome browser. And once that is done, Microsoft is bringing Edge to macOS, too. In addition, Microsoft is decoupling Edge from the Windows update process to offer a faster update cadence — and with that, it’ll bring the new Edge to Windows 7 and 8 users, too.

It’ll be a while before any of this happens, though. There’s no code to test today and the first previews are still months away. But at some point in 2019, Microsoft’s EdgeHTML and Chakra will go away and Blink and V8 will take its place. The company expects to release a first developer preview early next year.

Obviously, there is a lot to unpack here. What’s clear, though, is that Microsoft is acknowledging that Chrome and Chromium are the de facto standard today, both for users and for developers.

Over the years, especially after Microsoft left the Internet Explorer brand behind, Edge had, for the most part, become a perfectly usable browser, but Microsoft acknowledges that there were always compatibility issues. While it was investing heavily in fixing those, what we’re hearing from Microsoft is a very pragmatic message: it simply wasn’t worth the investment in engineering resources anymore. What Microsoft had to do, after all, was reverse engineer its way around problems on certain sites.

In part, that’s because Edge never quite gained the market share where developers cared enough to test their code on the platform. And with the web as big as it is, the long tail of incompatible sites remains massive.

Because many web developers work on Macs, where they don’t have access to Edge, testing for it became even more of an afterthought. Hence Microsoft’s efforts to bring Edge to the Mac, 15 years after it abandoned Internet Explorer for Mac. The company doesn’t expect that Edge on Mac will gain any significant market share, but it believes that having it available on every platform will mean that more developers will test their web apps with Edge, too.

Microsoft also admits that it didn’t help that Edge only worked on Windows 10 — and that Edge updates were bound to Windows updates. I was never quite sure why that was the case, but as Microsoft will now happily acknowledge, that meant that millions of users on older Windows versions were left behind, and even those on Windows 10 often didn’t get the latest, most compatible version of Edge because their companies remained a few updates behind.

For better or worse, Chrome has become the default and Microsoft is going with the flow. The company could have opted to open source EdgeHTML and its JavaScript engine. That option was on the table, but in the end, it opted not to. The company says that’s due to the fact that the current version of Edge has so many hooks into Windows 10 that it simply wouldn’t make much sense to do this if Microsoft wants to take the new Edge to Windows 7 and the Mac. To be fair, this probably would’ve been a fool’s errand anyway, since it’s hard to imagine that an open-source community around Edge would’ve made much of a difference in solving the practical problems anyway.

With this move, Microsoft also plans to increase its involvement in the Chromium community. That means it’ll bring to Chromium some of the work it did to make Edge work really well with touchscreens, for example. But also, as previously reported, the company now publicly notes that it is working with Google and Qualcomm to bring a native implementation of the Chrome browser to Windows 10 on ARM, making it snappier and more battery friendly than the current version that heavily relies on emulation.

Microsoft hopes that if it can make the compatibility issues a thing of the past, users will still gravitate to its browser because of what differentiates it. Maybe that’s its Cortana integration or new integrations with Windows and Office. Or maybe those are new consumer services or, for the enterprise users, specific features that make the lives of IT managers a bit easier.

When the rumors of this change first appeared a few days ago, a number of pundits argued that this isn’t great for the web because it gives even more power over web standards to the Chromium project.

I share some of those concerns, but Microsoft is making a very pragmatic argument for this move and notes that Edge’s small market share didn’t allow it to make a dent in this process anyway. By becoming more active in the Chromium community, it’ll have more of a voice — or so it hopes — and be able to advocate for web standards and bring its own innovations to Chromium.

You’re browser is probably the most complex piece of software running on your computer right now. That means switching out engines is anything but trivial. The company isn’t detailing what its development process will look like and how it’ll go about this, but we’re being told that the company is looking at which parts of the Edge experience to keep and then will work with the Chromium community to bring those to the Chromium engine, too.

Microsoft stresses that it isn’t giving up on Edge, by the way. The browser isn’t going anywhere. If you’re a happy Edge user today, chances are this move will make you an even happier Edge user in the long run. If you aren’t, Microsoft hopes you’ll give it a fresh look when the new Chromium-based version launches. It’s on Microsoft now to build a browser that is differentiated enough to get people to give it another shot.

 

 

Microsoft looks to iOS and Android for its path forward in mobile

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Between the release of Windows 10 Fall Creators Edition and the announcement of a new Surface Book, today’s Microsoft news was firmly focused on the desktop. But as the company works to build its future ecosystem, it’s keenly aware that no play in the space is complete without a mobile strategy. What shape that strategy will take, however, has been pretty unclear in the wake of Windows Phone’s long, drawn-out death.

Earlier this month, the company appeared to pronounce its proprietary mobile platform dead for good, as one time Windows Phone proselytizer Joe Belfiore threw in the towel on Twitter, declaring that “building new features/hardware aren’t the focus” after years of trying and trying again to make a vertically-integrated, Windows-based smartphone business model work.

In a conversation with TechCrunch to mark the launch of today’s news, Microsoft Windows and Devices Group EVP Terry Myerson shed more light on Microsoft’s way forward in mobile.

“Our customers are using phones with their PCs,” the executive explained. “They can start on their phones and continue on their PCs or consoles. We are focusing on scenarios with the phones people are using today […] end to end scenarios to get stuff done to participate in the gaming experience.”

Myerson would not reveal more about the company’s strategy beyond that — “I don’t want to answer more specifically,” he said when pressed — but it’s easy to begin connecting the dots of Microsoft’s new mobile road map.

Along with this morning’s new Windows 10 release, the software giant is releasing versions of its Edge browser for both iOS and Android — a tacit acknowledgement that the company needs to embrace the leading mobile operating systems in order to maintain relevance on the desktop.

With the quiet admission that Microsoft-branded smartphones are taking a back seat (or maybe more accurately, being left on the side of the road), Edge is shaping up to be more than just a simple browser for the company.

Taking a cue from the Google’s playbook, the app is a lightweight, but robust cross platform offering that also brings things like a reading mode and Cortana to the table. The new Creators Update also introduced additional Microsoft Pen compatibility for the desktop version, letting users take notes on e-books.

Speaking of Cortana, the company’s assistant will also be a key part of its mobile play moving forward. Microsoft has already released versions of the AI assistant for iOS and Android, as it attempts to give it a life outside of the desktop. That’s also seeing Microsoft work with third parties a la Amazon with Alexa to figure out what kind of mileage it could have on voice-powered devices, as with Harman’s new Cortana-powered smart speaker, and HP’s and Intel’s plans to build Cortana-powered devices.

As Surface head Panos Panay told us, “As I move from device to device and room to room, you have to make sure that they’re all connected through Cortana. We believe in that.”

Both Edge and Cortana are key pieces of this puzzle, providing key connective tissue that Windows users will almost certainly want to take with them on the go. With Windows Phone out of the equation, that will almost certainly mean syncing up increasingly with iOS and Android to make sure that Windows itself continues to stay relevant.

It’s something of a Plan B for the company. Clearly Microsoft would have preferred more control over its own mobile ecosystem (and even acquired Nokia to establish a hardware foothold), but for now, it’s going to have to rely on Google and Apple’s offerings. Not ideal, but the company has been producing software for competing platforms from its earliest days. Survival in the age of mobile means re-embracing those roots.

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