Why Chromium-powered Edge could be a gamechanger

The Microsoft Edge app
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Microsoft has a new browser. This is a big deal, and not only because it's the third go by the firm over the past 30 years. Internet Explorer is still trundling along, but has become a historical artefact. That doesn't stop it being useful, and it is clear that Microsoft has expended a lot of effort on this browser in recent years, especially with regards to security capabilities, which are comparable to the best.

But everything started to go a bit Pete Tong when Windows 7 arrived. Suddenly we had a new browser, one that claimed to be optimised for the touch experience. (As an aside, I still can't get on with the onscreen touch keyboard for Windows 10, but I guess it's just one of my many failings.)

Microsoft proclaimed Edge to be a new shining world of loveliness. However, it was pretty feature-thin at launch, even lacking any capability for add-ins. Add-ins have become a staple part of the browsing experience, especially given the capabilities of some to clean up web pages by ripping out adverts, to better handle your privacy and to strong-arm Facebook into doing what you want rather than what Mr Clegg wants. Although add-ins appeared in Edge, it never made a big impact.

Hence the move by Microsoft to adopt the same engine as Google Chrome. Of course, the Redmond Reality Distortion Field is kicking in with a vengeance. This is clearly for the best: all the loveliness of Chrome and its add-in portfolio, but with none of that tacky Googleness to spoil your day. I'm sure the marketing will run along similar lines.

The truth is that Microsoft had become increasingly irrelevant in the browser market, and this was really starting to hurt. No one, especially in the post-Ballmer era, expects Microsoft to do its old trick of stampeding into the marketplace and then adding in functionality that only works on its own browser. It has tried it in the past and there are companies out there that are still bearing the scars of that piece of corporate religious lunacy. But it should be understood that, as people have moved forward, they have tended to move to Google Chrome, which is now the dominant force in the market.

Indeed, for many, the use of Edge was a one-time thing, used solely to download Chrome. IE 11 is relegated to the "well, if Windows insists on opening something in IE 11, I'll use that, but only for sysadmin purposes". For all meaningful web work, IE 11 and Edge have been pushed summarily to the edge of the playing field.

Hence the brave step by Microsoft to move to the Chromium engine. It's in the process of building the Redmond version of Google Chrome, calling it Microsoft Edge. Yes, it's Edge, but not as you know it. You can already download Microsoft Edge Insider, either as a more stepped set of interim builds or as a daily "take what you get" set of overnight builds, and play with it if you like.

As you would expect for a beta, it's incomplete and crumbly in some areas. However, given the underlying core of the engine, it's actually pretty robust. Most pages render perfectly. Dive under the covers, and almost everything you would expect is there. The developer window, for example, works just fine. By default, Microsoft will push you towards the Microsoft Store for add-ins, but you can also load them directly from the Chrome Web Store. At least you can at the moment; let's see if this makes it to the final version. It would be quite mad if it didn't, but stranger things have happened.

The only glitch I could find is that the default search engine is Bing. I don't mind Bing, but I prefer DuckDuckGo for general searching, dropping back to Google when I want the full-fat, adverts-in-your-face version. I'm sure there must be a way of changing the default search engine, but I haven't stumbled upon it yet. The "Search Engine" settings panel that you find in Google Chrome isn't visible in the new Microsoft Edge, at least in the build I'm running.

So, at the end of the day, is this all a good thing? Everything will have to be judged by the final deliverable. But, so far, Microsoft Edge looks like a competent implementation of Chromium. And Microsoft is making it available both on Windows and macOS, which is a pleasant surprise.

The problem we have to wrestle with is that different browsers still end up rendering pages in different ways. You might think that after some 30 years, this would have been ironed out properly. But, no, there are pages that render one way in one browser and another way in a different engine. And yes, Microsoft, with IE 11 and Edge, has been contributing to this problem since it lost the lead to Chrome. Developers appear to focus on Chrome first, and other things second, which isn't surprising given their relative market share.

So I'm intrigued by Microsoft Edge. Might this be the tipping point that finally brings us a common platform across all desktops? Will it solidify the platform into something that can be considered "common" rather than "mostly the same except..."?

For myself, I shall be interested to see how Microsoft handles this within the context of its historical support position within Windows. It can't just throw the curtains open and declare that Chromium is the New One True Way. IE 11 is far too embedded into the Windows stack for that. But maybe IE 11 will be, at least in the short term, relegated to the rendering engine embedded within other tools, and that moving those services over to ChrEdge (for want of a better name) is the next task on the list.