Microsoft stunned most tech watchers several months ago when it announced it was abandoning 25 years of its go-it-alone browser strategy and would replace Edge’s web rendering engine with one developed by the Chromium open-source project. The shock wasn’t just that Microsoft was turning to open source for its browser. It was that Chromium also powers Edge’s main rival, Google’s Chrome browser — and that the Chromium project was originally created by Google, although Google is not in charge of it now.
The move was born of desperation. As Computerworld’s Gregg Keizer points out, Edge had only a 12% adoption rate in February, while Chrome had an insurmountable 67% market share. There’s been no evidence that Edge will ever catch up.
There are plenty of reasons for Edge’s failure. But a significant one is the lack of add-ons for the browser — a paltry 118 at last count, even though Microsoft has been courting developers to write add-ons for Edge ever since the browser was introduced four years ago. That’s compared to many thousands for Chrome. When Edge adopts Chromium, Chrome extensions will almost certainly be able to run on it.
By adopting Chromium, Microsoft can also free up Edge engineers to work on other company projects. And Edge will get more frequent updates than it does now, because Chromium generally gets updated eight times a year, Keizer reports.
So there’s a great deal of logic to the move. It’s only surprising because of how much it goes against the company’s decades of going its own way with browsers. But it’s very much in keeping with CEO Satya Nadella’s cleanup of an old, die-hard Microsoft culture that vowed to dominate every market possible using the blunt force of Windows’ dominance.
There’s poetic justice in Nadella accepting open-source standards for Edge and abandoning its go-it-alone ways. The move is a direct repudiation of the hard-charging, legally questionable tactics Bill Gates used to build Microsoft into what by the 1980s and 1990s had become the world’s most powerful tech company.
Because of that dominance, in 1998 the U.S. Department of Justice and 20 state attorneys general sued Microsoft for illegally using its Windows monopoly to thwart competition. Internet Explorer was at the core of the case. Microsoft, at the time, required that computer makers include Internet Explorer in every Windows installation. The company also made it difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to install and use non-Microsoft browsers. Microsoft contended that Internet Explorer was so integral to Windows that removing it would slow down the operating system. The company also claimed it was easy for people to install alternate browsers.
The trial uncovered the dirty underbelly of Microsoft’s strong-arm tactics. In perhaps the lowest point in the company’s public history, the company presented as evidence videotapes that purported to show that removing Internet Explorer would slow down Windows, and that it was quite simple to install a different browser on the operating system. It turned out, though, that Microsoft had doctored both tapes. Eventually Microsoft settled the suit.
Microsoft’s abandoning of a proprietary browser in favor of open standards finally closes that chapter of the company’s past. As I’ve written previously, Nadella has revived Microsoft by, among other things, increasingly having the company accept and work with open-source software. The company’s SQL Server database now runs on Linux, for example. John “JG” Chirapurath, a general manager with Microsoft, puts the new Microsoft outlook this way: ““To keep flexibility and choice is absolutely critical. We can’t walk into a customer today and offer them a data platform that exclusively works with Windows or, say, C#. We’ve got to go in there and say, ‘Can we meet you on your terms, and what does that look like?’”
Microsoft Vice President for Windows Joe Belfiore, in his announcement about Microsoft’s plan to move Edge to Chromium, seconded that by saying, “We intend to become a significant contributor to the Chromium project, in a way that can make not just Microsoft Edge — but other browsers as well — better on both PCs and other devices.” If true, that means Microsoft will be contributing to work that will not just make Edge better, but Chrome as well, because Chrome uses Chromium technology.
The move signals a symbolic end to the old Microsoft. Microsoft’s proprietary browsing technology helped the company unfairly extend its monopoly, and that abuse eventually brought the company low. By going open source with the core of Edge, Nadella has finally refashioned Microsoft in a way that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer could have never imagined.