The history of web browsers is fascinating if you’re of a geeky bent, from the early days of NSCA Mosaic through to the explosive growth of Netscape and its eventual ousting by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) browser. If you’re not that geeky, you’re probably more used to clicking on an icon to access the web, and you may not even care what that icon is. Current browser usage figures suggest it’s most likely Google’s popular Chrome browser.
Microsoft’s moved on from IE, and it’s also moved well on from the days when IE commanded a majority share in the browser market, but that hasn’t stopped Microsoft from competing with its own Edge browser, pre-installed with its Windows 10 operating system.
Microsoft has expended significant time and money in promoting its Edge browser as faster and safer than competitor Google’s Chrome browser, but it’s recently shifted gears in a rather radical way.
The next version of its browser will still be called Microsoft Edge, but underneath the shiny icon, it’ll be running on the open-source Chromium engine. As the name suggests, that’s the same rendering engine used for Google’s Chrome, as well as a number of open-source alternative browser choices.
Microsoft’s not quite waving the white flag and asking Google to get on with the job of delivering new browser experiences, however, stating that it intends to work on developing and improving the underlying Chromium engine from within its own developer ranks, before sharing those improvements out for other Chromium browsers.
So what’s the practical effect likely to be if you’re already using the Edge browser? Microsoft’s claim is that it’ll slowly shift its desktop browser over to Chromium rendering, at which point web developers will be able to ditch Edge-specific optimisations or layout instructions and instead concentrate on a mostly-Chromium web. Apple’s still got Safari, there’s still Firefox and Opera as well, so it’s not quite a 100% Chromium web.
That update should be effectively invisible to you, because the icon’s not likely to change, although it does bring with it the prospect of Chrome extension accessibility within the Edge browser. It also means Microsoft can expand the range of its Edge browser, offering it for competitor Apple’s macOS platform. Microsoft used to develop a macOS version of IE many years ago, but it’s long been an obsolete app there.
It could well be a net win for Internet security as well, as long as Microsoft’s properly sharing out its improvements to the Chromium engine over time.
You should see web pages appear more consistently across devices too. Right now, if you load some pages in Edge and the same pages in Chrome, the text content should be similar, but you’re likely to see small differences in how they handle layout and some interactive page elements. It’s a big problem for a lot of businesses, especially if functions like text entry boxes or drop-down menus don’t work properly, and this should help minimise those frustrations.
So is it a net win for Internet browser users? Edge’s overall market share as a used platform is tiny, even though it’s present on every Windows 10 machine, so in that sense it’s not much of a loss. Where it could be interesting is if a third party develops an even better browser with newer features. Google’s Chrome appears unassailable right now in the browser space, and even moreso now with Edge in tow, but then, the same thing could have been said about Internet Explorer at one time.