Browser wars 2018: Microsoft Edge falls behind ... Internet Explorer?

The last time Microsoft got involved in a browser war, it was a different century, and it ended badly. In 2018, the company has a shiny new browser, Microsoft Edge. But the new browser isn't winning over Windows 10 users.

In a few months, Google's Chrome browser will celebrate its tenth birthday. As that milestone approaches, it's apparent that Chrome has won the hearts and minds and, most importantly, the desktops of the majority of PC and Mac owners.

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Chrome's dominance is so complete that most observers have stopped looking at the monthly market share statistics.

See: Google reveals Chrome's new look: Here's what you'll see in Material Design refresh

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that a brand-new browser war has broken out. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the main combatants are its two flagship browsers, and the battle is not going as expected.

Microsoft has made a substantial investment in its default browser for Windows 10, Microsoft Edge. In less than three years, Edge has improved dramatically, adding support for extensions and winning speed tests against entrenched competitors. But Microsoft's shiny new browser has struggled to achieve market share, mindshare, and positive reviews.

The cold hard numbers, as compiled by the U.S. Government's Digital Analytics Program (DAP) don't lie.

In the first three months of 2018, Microsoft Edge accounted for a paltry 8 percent of the 1.2 billion visits to government websites from consumer and business PCs and Macs.

That figure's a bit misleading, of course, because Edge isn't available on PCs running Windows 7 or on Macs.

Also: IE zero-day alert: Attackers hitting unpatched bug in Microsoft browser

But even if you restrict the universe to PCs running Windows 10, Edge is far from a roaring success story.

In the past year, among Windows 10 users, the usage share for Microsoft Edge, as measured by DAP, actually declined by nearly 1 percent, going from 20.3 percent in the second quarter of 2017 to 19.4 percent in the first three months of 2018.

(Those statistics measure more than 600 million visits from Windows 10 PCs over each period. The raw statistics are available from https://analytics.usa.gov if you want to check for yourself.)

Also: Windows 10 security: Google exposes how malicious sites can exploit Microsoft Edge

Meanwhile, guess which browser is up substantially among Windows 10 users over the same period?

Chrome usage remained steady, at just a fraction over 56 percent.

Firefox usage fell dramatically, from 11 percent to 9 percent.

The big winner was, shockingly, Internet Explorer, which grew its share from 11.8 percent to 14.8 percent.

Browser Q2 2017 Q1 2018
Google Chrome 56.4 percent 56.2 percent
Microsoft Edge 20.3 percent 19.4 percent
Internet Explorer 11.8 percent 14.8 percent
Firefox 11.0 percent 9.0 percent
All others 0.4 percent 0.6 percent

Source: U.S. Government Digital Analytics Program

There might be a sliver of good news for Microsoft in those numbers. The increase in usage for Internet Explorer on Windows 10 is almost certainly a reflection of increased adoption of Windows 10 by enterprise customers.

Over that nine-month period, Windows 10 overtook Windows 7 dramatically.

In Q2 2017, visits from Windows 7 PCs outnumbered Windows 10 visits by more than 13 percent, 51.9 to 38.3 percent.

By the first quarter of 2018, that ratio had flipped, with Windows 10 usage firmly outpacing Windows 7, 49.4 percent to 42.9 percent.

Unfortunately for the developers of Microsoft Edge, more than 80 percent of Windows 10 users are changing the default browser at their first opportunity.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Microsoft made with Edge was a simple tactical error: They never released Edge for Windows 7. For the large number of customers still running Windows 7, the only available Microsoft browser is Internet Explorer.

And because Microsoft has actively disparaged Internet Explorer, any Windows 7 users who want to run a modern browser are effectively limited to third-party alternatives like Chrome.

So when those Windows 7 shops migrate to Windows 10, Edge is an unknown quantity, and they quite logically choose to continue using the same browser they used with Windows 7: Internet Explorer or Chrome.

It's hard to imagine any marketing strategy that's going to convince customers running Windows 10 to switch from Chrome to Edge. Likewise, those who have chosen Internet Explorer are typically doing so for compatibility with in-house apps written in the distant past. Edge isn't an option for them, either.

Oh well. At least Microsoft doesn't have to worry that it's going to get into antitrust trouble with this browser.

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