Two decades into the 21st Century, it seems nearly impossible to imagine that Microsoft was once the undisputed champion of the World Wide Web. The journey from absolute dominance to also-ran has been a slow and steady succession of missteps, complicated by aggressive antitrust regulators on two continents and relentless competition.
This week, Microsoft unveiled the public beta of its latest browser reboot, a new version of Microsoft Edge based on the open-source Chromium codebase. If history is any guide, the odds of its success are low.
Consider this timeline:
- 1995: Microsoft releases Internet Explorer with the first OEM version of Windows 95, putting its flagship browser on hundreds of millions of PCs within a few years. That release is followed by versions of Internet Explorer for the Mac and Linux.
- 2001: After losing a grueling antitrust case in the United States, Microsoft releases Internet Explorer 6 and then essentially stops developing the browser, ending support for non-Windows versions.
- 2004: Mozilla Firefox rises from the ashes of Netscape and begins taking market share from the increasingly insecure Internet Explorer.
- 2006: After a series of painful security issues, Microsoft releases Internet Explorer 7 with tabbed browsing and some security fixes, but it does little to stem the loss of browser share.
- 2008: Google Chrome launches; within a few years it will pass Firefox as the most popular Internet Explorer alternative, and less than a decade later it will be the new undisputed browser champ across multiple platforms.
- 2012: With the release of Windows 8, Microsoft doubles down, literally, on Internet Explorer, adding a so-called Modern Internet Explorer to the mix. It's even less well received than its host operating system and development stops within two years.
- 2015: With Windows 10, Microsoft releases an all-new browser, Microsoft Edge, built on a new rendering engine called EdgeHTML, with the goal of standards compliance rather than backward compatibility.
- 2019: Microsoft announces it will leave EdgeHTML behind and use Google's Chromium as the rendering engine for the next version of Edge.
That's the third reboot for Microsoft's web platform in less than a decade. Normally, that's a sign of an organization that's flailing rather than one that's confidently moving forward. But maybe this time's different.
For starters, this is the first cross-platform release of a Microsoft browser in nearly two decades. The new Edge is available not just on Windows 10 but on older versions of Windows, on the Mac, and on Android and iOS, (Microsoft declined to comment on its plans for a Linux version but wouldn't rule out the possibility.)
Also: Microsoft will pay hackers up to $30K to find flaws in the new Edge browser TechRepublic
That has the potential to solve Microsoft's biggest problem, which is that users running something other than Windows 10 don't currently have the option to run a modern browser from Microsoft. That includes the extremely influential web developer community, which generally prefers Macs, as well as corporations that continue to run on Windows 7.
The results in terms of browser usage are dire. According to the most recent stats from the U.S. Government's Digital Analytics Program, less than 16% of traffic from Windows 10 PCs comes through Microsoft Edge, and even Internet Explorer has a higher share of usage. That's down significantly from the 20% share Edge had on Windows 10 PCs in 2017. Meanwhile, Chrome's usage share on Windows 10 is above 60%.
Still, making it possible for desktop computer users to switch browsers and giving them a reason to do so are two different things. And the barriers to adoption are significant.
By keeping the Microsoft Edge brand instead of changing the name of the browser, Microsoft might be shooting itself in the foot. Counting on busy IT pros and web developers to understand the difference between the old Edge and the new is a big ask, especially when the alternative is easy: Just install Chrome.
Likewise, developers have every right to be skeptical that this time things will be different. Older devs who remember the pain of coding for compatibility with Internet Explorer probably want to wash their hands of the whole mess, and those who enthusiastically embraced either of the prior two reboots are no doubt giving some serious side-eye to Redmond.
The biggest change in the landscape, and one that might benefit Microsoft going forward, is the increasing attention that Google is getting for its privacy practices and policies. In theory, Microsoft could offer the best of both worlds, with a browser that is a near-perfect clone of Chrome without the privacy baggage.
But crafting that message and then delivering it successfully are two completely different challenges. Microsoft tried this once before, with the disastrous "Don't get Scroogled" ad campaign, which applied the mudslinging techniques of American political campaigns to Microsoft's core competitive relationship with Google.
Maybe this time is different. Maybe Google is ready to be knocked off its perch and maybe an eager world is ready once again to embrace a Microsoft browser on the desktop.
But don't hold your breath.