Hey Microsoft, it’s time to make a better web browser
A few days ago, I launched Microsoft’s Edge browser to check some things that I specifically use it for. I was greeted by the dialog that we’ve probably all seen by now, the one that suggests you switch to Microsoft’s suggested settings. Of course, the box to switch is pre-selected for you. It’s easy enough to dismiss, as I’ve done dozens of times at this point.
But this time, I didn’t think, and I just clicked apply. I immediately realized my mistake, went into Edge settings, and changed by default search engine back to Google. Not thinking about it, I later clicked on a link in Slack, and sure enough, my default browser had been changed to Edge. There was never any dialog box to specifically change it, as there would be if any other browser wanted to become the default. And then, I had to go through Windows 11’s nightmarish settings to turn my default browser back to Vivaldi.
I don’t even like Vivaldi. It’s a buggy mess, despite being a very clean experience. But I’ll take it any day over Edge. And after having to switch my browser back, I realized, Microsoft should really be doing a better job of this.
That’s not all that’s wrong with Microsoft Edge. The browser is a faint echo of what it was once promised to be. Now it’s designed as a way to trick you into adopting Microsoft services and a way to spam you with content you don’t want to see.
A brief history of Microsoft Edge
When Microsoft revamped Edge from Google’s open-source Chromium, it wasn’t the first time that the Redmond firm promised that the browser would be good. When Windows 10 was first being announced, it was to come with a brand-new browser, which was only known as Project Spartan at the time. Spartan was going to have innovative new features like the ability to use a pen to write on webpages and save them.
It’s pretty clear where that all headed. Spartan became Edge, a browser that was built on Microsoft’s own EdgeHTML engine. The company did its best to keep up with web standards, but there was always an issue that Edge couldn’t be updated unless Windows was getting a feature update. While Chrome was getting updated every six weeks, Edge got updated every six months. On top of that, Chrome is so dominant when it comes to usage share that the internet is just built for it.
Edge never picked up steam, despite Microsoft continuously trying to improve it. One day, someone from the Edge team asked me what would need to happen for me to use their browser. I jokingly replied that they’d have to turn it into Chrome, the browser I was using at the time.
As it turned out, the team had something similar in mind. Microsoft Edge was to be rebuilt from Chromium, and fans of the company’s products rejoiced. It was an exciting time. Finally, Microsoft fans would have a decent browser to use without having to go to Google. Moreover, Edge was also coming to macOS, iOS, Android, and even Linux, so you’d be able to sync your browsing history to all of your devices.
When it first launched in Canary and Dev channels, it was good, really good. The browser seamlessly imported your history, passwords, and more from Chrome, and then it was just a clean experience. Sure, Microsoft set the default browser to Bing, but you could change it, and that was to be expected, right?
After announcing Edge Chromium in December 2018, it was generally available on January 15, 2020. It was missing key features, such as history sync, something that’s basic for Chrome users. Eventually, all of these features arrived.
Despite delays to core features, it did seem like Microsoft was on the right track toward a great browser. The only problem was that it really wasn’t usable. If you can’t sync your history between devices, any sane person would stick with Chrome until you can.
Edge now exists as a means to push Bing and other Microsoft services
Bing is a bad search engine. I consistently find better results on Google, and I’m pretty sure that exactly no one is tailoring their SEO for Bing. It simply doesn’t have enough users. It’s kind of the same problem that the old Edge has. The web is built around Google now.
The problem is that Bing powers a lot of Microsoft’s efforts, not just web searches from Bing.com. That means that despite the fact that so few people use it that you’d expect for it to be killed off, Microsoft actually does care quite a bit about it.
I, however, would prefer it if I could never see Bing again. Every single time I see a Bing search page, it’s by accident. It means I forgot to change the default search in some browser I’m using. And Microsoft actively tries to push me to use it.
For example, I opened with that story about how Edge occasionally just tosses up a pop-up to tell you to use recommended settings. That pop-up is misleading too, and it makes Edge feel more like malware than anything else. It’s just saying that your settings have somehow been changed from what’s recommended and that it’s a problem you should fix.
And of course, if you change your default search engine, that’s one of the settings that won’t sync. This is behavior that I’d expect, and I’m not particularly mad about it on its own. But this is cumulative. It’s on top of a whole bunch of other stuff that feels like cheap tricks to get you to use Bing.
Microsoft has always been bad with cheap tricks
The problem here is that Microsoft doesn’t realize how bad of a user experience it’s providing. The people that want to use Bing most likely are already, and the ones that don’t are just going to get annoyed when Edge tricks them into using it.
Let’s turn the clock back a bit. Windows RT was a version of Windows 8 that ran on Arm processors, but you could only run apps from the Store. Unfortunately, Microsoft didn’t communicate this very well, and Windows RT looked exactly like regular Windows, so you’d go and buy a Surface RT, and then try to install Chrome – which said it would run on Windows 7 or higher – and it didn’t work. That’s a ‘gotcha moment’.
Fast forward a bit to the next time that Microsoft wanted to force everyone to use Store apps, with Windows 10 S. The big difference was that you’d be able to pay to upgrade from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro, giving you an out. Of course, that makes for a terrible experience for consumers, when they buy a premium PC like the Surface Laptop for a thousand dollars, only to find out when they get home that they have to pay another $100 to install the apps that they want. That’s a gotcha moment.
Tricking you into switching your default browser is another gotcha moment. There’s no one that goes through that and comes out on the other end grateful that they ended up using Bing.
The new tab page is a disgusting mess
One of the reasons I choose Vivaldi despite how buggy it is is that the new page can have almost nothing on it. That’s what I want. The new tab page in Edge is so bad that it almost gives me a headache. And yes, you can customize it, but I don’t have the time to do that on every new PC, nor should I have to.
At the top is a search bar, powered by Bing, as you’d guess. Below are shortcuts to frequently viewed websites, which is fine.
Which new tab page is better? More peaceful? Pleasant? Less disruptive to your FLOW? pic.twitter.com/AZn3Zs9Mpj
— Richard Woods (@TheRichWoods) October 6, 2021
Below that is what basically feels like spam. Labeled as “My Feed”, it’s a bunch of stuff that I wouldn’t care about in a million years, such as headlines about Rihanna’s child, what Britney Spears posted on Instagram, football news, and more. There are also ads with headlines like, “Is a Recession Coming? 5 Things To Do ASAP”, and frankly, it blends right in with the quality of content I’m seeing natively.
The thing is, even if the content was relevant, I wouldn’t want to see any of that. Why would anyone want a busy, noisy new tab page? I don’t know about you, but when I click that ‘+’ icon to open a new tab, I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do with it. I don’t need suggestions.
While I look at the ads and the headlines, it feels like just another way for Microsoft to monetize its browser instead of actually making it a good experience. The problem is that if you sacrifice a good experience in the name of monetization, no one will use it. So you lose out on the experience and the monetization along with it.
Syncing is slow
I’m something of a rare use case because I’m activating a new Windows PC just about every week. That means that I’m setting up a browser. The old joke for Internet Explorer, and later Edge, was that it’s a Chrome installer. And aside from the year or so that I used it as a default browser before I couldn’t take it anymore, one of the first things I do on a new PC is use Edge to download a new browser.
Let me put it this way. When I set up a new PC, I can open Edge, download Vivaldi, sign in to Vivaldi, and have all of my passwords and favorites sync in Vivaldi long before any of them appear in Microsoft Edge. Edge simply isn’t very good at syncing. Oh, and that amount of time doesn’t include the 10-second animation you have to go through just to open Edge for the first time.
Also, sometimes there are bugs in syncing. I had an issue once with Edge where every time I signed in, it switched the browser to light mode, and I’d have to change it to the system setting. This was eventually resolved, but at the time, no matter how many times I’d change the setting, it would still be changed back on a new PC. This went on for months and months.
That’s just one example of several, and if it was just that one bug that got fixed, I wouldn’t even mention it. But it’s not, and syncing is that important in a modern browser in this multi-device world.
Edge was supposed to be good, and some things are good
Microsoft Edge was supposed to bring balance to the force, so to speak. If you’re a Microsoft fan, you’re probably not much of a Google fan, so basically getting Chrome but with Microsoft services seemed perfect.
The team started out on such a good track too. Everything was seamless. When opening Edge Chromium, you’d get a simple message asking if you wanted to import your things from Chrome, and once you did, you could quite literally pick up in Edge where you left off in Chrome. It was great. But Microsoft did what Microsoft does; it continued to add new features instead of improving the features that actually matter.
Some things are still good though.
Microsoft Edge is the only Chromium browser that works natively on Arm
If you use Windows on Arm, then you know that your choice in decent browsers is limited. While Windows 11 can emulate any x64 app on an ARM64 processor, you’ll probably want a browser that runs natively. For that, your only choices are Edge and Firefox.
As a matter of fact, Google does indeed have Chrome ready to go, and has for years. It just hasn’t released it.
Edge still has excellent inking features
One cool thing about Microsoft Edge is inking, specifically for PDFs. When a company sends me an NDA or a loan agreement, I just open it in Edge, sign it with that PC’s pen, save it, and send it back. It’s fantastic.
Of course, you can do more, such as highlighting and stuff. It’s just nice to have a simple, easy, and free way to write on PDFs.
Microsoft needs to do better
I want Microsoft Edge to be good. I really do. Like I said earlier, I set up a new Windows PC almost every week. I don’t want to install extra software if I don’t have to.
I currently use Vivaldi. There was a bug for months where I’d try to type something in the URL bar, and it would just repopulate with the existing URL. It was infuriating. Autofill URLs never seem to be quite right. Tab management seems to have a bug in it right now where you have to pull tabs away from the window just to split them away from the main window.
But it’s still better than Edge. Microsoft likes to talk about your “flow”. You know, that’s when you’re doing something on your PC and you’re just in your groove. That can be when doing anything. You’re passionate about something, you’re creating it, and you’re just in the zone. The idea is that the Redmond firm wants to create products that help keep you in your flow, not distract from it.
Microsoft Edge distracts from your flow. It’s a bad browser, which is a shame, because it should, and totally could be good. All Microsoft would have to do is work on improving existing features instead of adding useless new ones, and stop with the cheap tricks to get people to use their services like Bing. Unfortunately, those things are unlikely. It’s very much Microsoft’s culture to launch new features instead of improving the core features, and the monetization angle is always going to be a key component of how Microsoft operates. Other companies might say that providing a great experience would lead to monetization, but that’s not how this is going to go.