Microsoft wants you on Edge, even if it has to trick you

Stealthily getting users to use its browser is ill-advised. Why not just make the thing better?

Credit: Wikimedia

Microsoft is embarking on a stealth campaign to force you to use its failing Edge browser, incorporating in the big Windows 10 upgrade that is due out this fall tactics that a couple of decades ago might have run afoul of antitrust regulators. Now, though, rather than confront the company, federal regulators are likely to give a big yawn — a sign of just how much of a failure Edge is, and how little other browser providers have to fear.

Meanwhile, the company is unlikely to gain much in market share, certainly not enough to offset the ill will it will generate among its customers.

Microsoft is antsy about Edge because the successor to Internet Explorer has been a dismal failure since it was introduced in March 2015. Its worldwide market share among all browsers on all operating systems on all device types for February 2018 was a lowly 1.8%, versus 57.5% for Chrome, according to Statcounter. And even on Windows 10, where it’s the default browser, it’s a flop — only 11.7% of Windows machines use it, according to Net Applications, down almost two points from the month before, and the lowest market share on Windows 10 yet.

So what is Microsoft doing to try to gain market share for Edge? Is it giving it a head-to-toe revamp and introducing must-have features to compete with Chrome and other browsers? Based on my deep-dive look at the newest version, which is still in beta and will be built into the upcoming Windows 10 Spring Creators Update, it’s certainly not doing that. Very little new is there; the Edge browser you see and use before the update will be much the same Edge browser you use after it.

Is Microsoft doing something to address one of the browser’s biggest problems, a paucity of extensions compared to competing browsers? Once again, the answer is no. As I write this, a total of 99 extensions are available for Edge, compared to many thousands for Chrome and Firefox.

So what is Microsoft’s grand plan for convincing you and millions of others to switch from your current browser to Edge? It’s this: In the fall update to Window 10, Windows’ built-in email app will open all links in Edge rather than the browser you’ve set as your default. So you may want to use Chrome, for example, but if you use Windows Mail to open a link, you’ll use Edge whether you like it or not. And clearly, given Edge’s dismal market share, you won’t like it.

Microsoft is currently testing this feature in the latest version of the public preview of the Windows 10 update that will be released in the fall. And if you believe the company, Microsoft isn’t doing it because it wants you to switch to Edge. Instead, the company insists, it has your interests at heart. Microsoft spokespersons Dona Sakar and Brandon LeBlanc claim in a blog post that doing this “provides the best, most secure and consistent experience on Windows 10 and across your devices. With built-in features for reading, note-taking, Cortana integration, and easy access to services such as SharePoint and OneDrive, Microsoft Edge enables you to be more productive, organized and creative without sacrificing your battery life or security.”

OK, you can stop laughing now. Back to serious business.

Even for a company well known for bouts of occasional arrogance, this is a fairly shocking move — and a boneheaded one. It won’t succeed. It’s likely that few people even bother to use the Mail app built into Windows 10. I’ve asked a dozen people if they do, and not a single one does. Several people had never even heard of the app. Not a scientific survey, I admit. But do one yourself. Your results will most likely be similar. Litmus Software says it analyzed 15 billion emails to find out the market share of email clients on desktops, laptops and mobile devices. Windows Mail doesn’t show up in the top ten. (The company didn’t publish results below the top ten.) Even Windows Live Mail, a discontinued Microsoft product, came in at No. 10, with a 1% market share. So clearly, Microsoft’s move won’t get many people to switch.

Back in the 1990s, the federal government came down hard on Microsoft for antitrust violations, saying the company was, among other things, using a monopoly on its operating system to thwart competitors to its Internet Explorer browser. A judge ruled against Microsoft, and Microsoft had to make it easier for people to use competing browsers in Windows. The result: Makers of better browsers cleaned Microsoft’s clock. Internet Explorer’s market share tanked. And now we have Edge, even more of a failure.

Microsoft should have learned from that experience that building better software, not using strong-arm tactics, is the way to win the browser wars. If it’s smart, it’ll drop this ill-advised attempt to force people to use Edge, and instead make a better browser, one that people will flock to instead of avoiding like the plague.

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