The browser wars are back, but it’s different this time

It’s about privacy, not marketshare

If you weren’t convinced we live in a new era for Microsoft’s consumer-facing software, the one-two punch of Windows 7 closing down and the new Chromium-based version of Edge officially launching ought to do it for you. Microsoft’s new Edge Chromium browser is out now for both Windows and macOS.

We’ll be taking a closer, more critical look at the Edge browser now that it’s no longer in beta over the coming days. Tom Warren has just as many thoughts about the future of Windows as I do about the implications of the switch over to the Chromium codebase, which is mostly maintained by Google.

We’ll be getting into all of it, but I want to start with some very high-level things to know about browsers right now — because after many years of stasis, things are really about to change.

Just today, alongside the Edge launch we also got the very sad news that Mozilla had to lay off about 70 people, TechCrunch reports. In a public memo, interim CEO Mitchell Baker wrote that “to responsibly make additional investments in innovation to improve the internet, we can and must work within the limits of our core finances.”

The Mozilla and Microsoft news isn’t directly connected, but it is indirectly connected in a thousand ways. Both companies have in some sense spent the past few years contending with Google.

For Microsoft, it was the realization that its project to create its own web rendering engine was an uphill climb that wasn’t worth the investment. Too many websites rendered oddly in Edge, often because they were coded specifically for Chrome or Safari’s Webkit instead of following more generic standards. The deep irony is that long ago, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer nearly broke the web because it demanded custom code from web developers.

So Microsoft made the tough call: it bailed and switched to the same technology that runs Chrome. But there are key differences: Microsoft has taken a different stance on web tracking than Google and it has also, obviously, plugged Edge into Microsoft’s services.

For me, the key thing to watch will be whether or not this new Chromium-based Edge feels tacked-on to Windows. On a very personal note, the fact that some Microsoft email clients still revert to Word’s HTML rendering engine is a huge thorn in my side. But there are a million ways that HTML rendering affects and OS, and I’ll be waiting to see how Chromium affects Windows and vice verse. One of the old Edge’s best features was how kind it was to battery life.

There’s also the question of Microsoft’s app framework future — how much of it will be Electron, how much will be Progressive Web Apps, and how much will be actual Windows apps. All open questions, and all questions I’m likely to defer to Tom Warren on. As with everything else, something to watch.

For Mozilla, it was switching back to Google Search as the default in Firefox and leading the charge to a more privacy-focused model. Firefox’s decisions around blocking trackers inspired Apple to be even more aggressive in doing the same last year. This week even Google was forced to throw in the towel and commit to eventually disabling third-party cookie.

As I noted in my article on Tuesday about Chrome’s decision, there are many, many (many!) forces at play in the coming browser wars. At a high level, if I had to explain what’s happening without worrying too much about the details, here’s how I’d put it in one incredibly overwrought sentence:

The mobile web is broken and unfettered tracking and data sharing have made visiting websites feel toxic, but since the ecosystem of websites and ad companies can’t fix it through collective action, it falls on browser makers to use technological innovations to limit that surveillance, however each company that makes a browser is taking a different approach to creating those innovations, and everybody distrusts everybody else to act in the best interest of the web instead of the best interest of their employers’ profits.

Here’s a shorter sentence: the next browser war is here and it’s a goat rodeo.

I’ve been avoiding getting into the precise details of the proposals out there to fix the tracking problem because things are changing so quickly across so many different tracks. I am sure that sometime soon I will break and tuck into Google’s Privacy Sandbox and Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention and Mozilla’s defaults that deserve credit for kicking a lot of this off. Until then, know that there are two important things to know.

First: there are new browser technologies and limits coming that could radically change how ads work and could make it easier for you to protect your privacy no matter what browser you use. Since this is the web, it’ll take time, but everybody seems committed.

Second: the way many of us think about a Browser War is in terms of marketshare — and that is the wrong metric this time. There is a browser war, but it won’t be won or lost based on who can convince the most people to switch to their browser. Because most people can’t or won’t switch on the platform that matters: mobile.

In 2020, the desktop is a minor skirmish compared to browsers on phones.

On phones, many people aren’t really free to choose their browser. That’s literally true on the iPhone, which Apple locks down so apps can only use its web rendering technology. And it’s for-intents-and-purposes true on Android, where the vast majority of browsers just use Chromium. Yes, there is an Android browser ballot happening in Europe, but it’s much too early to know what its effects will be.

That brings me back to the new Edge. Microsoft has committed itself to Android so fully that it is currently working on making its own Android-based Surface phone, due out later this year. And so if you’re Microsoft, it makes perfect sense to want to get your own first-party browser that’s fully kitted up with your services on that phone.

The easiest, best way to do that on Android is to just use Chromium. And if you want your company to be good at Chromium on mobile, it doesn’t hurt to ensure it’s also good at Chromium on Windows.

The fact that I’ve looped all the way back to Microsoft needing to provide services on mobile isn’t (just) my usual rhetorical meandering, it’s the whole point. The new Browser Wars aren’t about who makes the fastest or best browser, they’re about whose services you want and whose data policies you trust.

Anyway, here’s how to download Microsoft’s new Edge browser. You should do it. And install Firefox. And maybe Brave and Vivaldi and whatever else. A return to real browser competition on the desktop means we might have our best chance in years to fix up the web again — and it might just create some momentum that could make the mobile web better too.

All Rights Reserved for Dieter Bohn

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