In latest Windows test builds, Microsoft discourages alternate browsers

In a new test build for an upcoming Windows 10 feature update, Microsoft appears to be testing a warning dialog box that will discourage users from installing third-party browsers. The feedback has been less than kind.

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Update 13-Sept: I can confirm that this feature will not be included in the public release of the October 2018 Update. Details below.

One of ZDNet's Australian editors pinged me earlier today, after seeing a tweet from an angry Windows 10 user. "Surely this is a joke, right?" he asked. Surely Microsoft knows better than to intercept an attempt to install a competing web browser with a plug for its own built-in Edge browser.

My reaction was pretty much the same, so I set about to see if I could reproduce the behavior.

I started by downloading and installing Firefox on a PC running the Windows 10 April 2018 Update (version 1803), the latest public release. It installed without any interference.

Next, I switched to a virtual machine running a recent Insider preview build of Windows 10, where I was able to reproduce this behavior. For good measure, I tested the installers for both Firefox and Chrome and received this "warning" each time.

The wording of the dialog box looks like it was crafted by someone in the legal department, with not a disparaging word about the competing browsers. But the implication is clear: "Don't install that other browser. Try Edge instead." Clicking the Install Anyway button dismissed the dialog box immediately and continued the installation.

A few hours later, after watching a slow-motion cascade of outrage from a few fellow Windows-focused reporters, I decided to do some more testing. Based on that testing, it appears that Microsoft has suspended this experiment.

I couldn't reproduce the behavior I had seen earlier when I tested in a separate virtual machine. Nor could I make the annoying dialog box appear on a physical PC after installing the latest Insider preview release (build 17758).

I tried rolling back the original virtual machine to a previous checkpoint, and still the installers for competing browsers functioned perfectly normally, with no interruptions. Finally, as a last resort, I completely reset the VM running build 17755. Still couldn't make the offending dialog box appear.

So what's going on here? Keep in mind this is a preview release, which will not be available to the general public for another month or so. My assumption is that Microsoft decided to test this feature to get some feedback on it.

Hoo boy, did they get feedback.

A Microsoft spokesperson confirmed that this is indeed a test:

We've tested this functionality with Insiders only - The Windows Insider Program enables Microsoft to test different features, functionality and garner feedback before rolling out broadly. Customers remain in control and can choose the browser of their choice.

In earlier preview builds, Microsoft has used A-B testing to try out new features on subsets of its Insider test group. The company has also postponed and even killed features that received negative feedback. Update: Since the initial publication of this post, I have confirmed that this feature will not be in the October 2018 Update when it is publicly released next month.

It's possible that this is a very specific dialog box in response to a new setting in the October 2018 Update, which adds "app recommendations" to the group of settings that allow administrators to block installation or pop up a warning when standard users try to install apps from outside the Microsoft Store. With the "warn" option set, for example, trying to download the conventional installer for Spotify results in this dialog box, which sends you to the Store for the properly packaged version.

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New Windows 10 settings are designed to steer you to apps from the Microsoft Store.

For now, Windows users will have to wait and see whether this promotional feature makes it into the final release of the October 2018 Update. Microsoft has done a good job with the development of Edge. They have a right to encourage their customers to at least try it. But this is absolutely the wrong way to do that.

Personally, I hope this terrible idea gets swept into the Recycle Bin and then permanently deleted. It's unlikely to boost usage of Microsoft Edge by any meaningful percentage; more importantly, it's a tone-deaf implementation that would do nothing more than encourage the usual critics to repeat the same tired arguments. Overall, it would have a profound negative impact on Microsoft's reputation, undoing years of positive work with the open source community.

One thing's for sure: No one working on the Windows team in 2018 was there 20 years ago, because this is exactly the sort of thing that got Microsoft in deep antitrust doo-doo back in the late 1990s. Maybe someone can Google that.

Just don't use Microsoft Edge when you do, because Google will ... well, here, see for yourself:

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Visit any Google property using Microsoft Edge and you will get this invitation. Every. Single. Time.

Who said the browser wars were dead?

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