In 2015, with Internet Explorer a dead browser walking, Microsoft stepped back into the web browser wars with the speedy new Microsoft Edge. Built around a revamped and tuned-up version of the engine that powered Microsoft’s web browsers since the late 1990s, Edge was meant to challenge the Google’s hegemonic Chrome, potentially sparking a new browser war from which surfers everywhere would benefit.
It failed. Edge, for all its zippy performance, wasn’t able to gain a sizeable user base and now, as Windows Central reports, Microsoft is planning to put it out of its misery. That’s bad news for all of us.
One browser to rule them all
If you’ve been using the web for at least a decade, you’ll remember that Chrome wasn’t always king. In 2010, in the midst of the never-ending Second Browser War, Firefox and Internet Explorer were dueling for dominance. Chrome barely existed back then. Now, just eight years later, Chrome has more or less vanquished both of its opponents with a market share of over 60 percent. Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox lag far behind, Edge even further.
Chrome’s rise to domination is not bad in itself. It was the natural outcome of a healthy and competitive browser market. IE, Firefox, and Chrome—each with a differently coded browser ‘engine’ to power it—were locked in a constant battle that led to improvements on all fronts as they jostled for prime position, leading to better browsers for all of us. Better yet, because each browser was unique under the hood, the squabbling trio ensured that the infrastructure of the internet remained open and versatile. No one behemoth held the power to shape the standards of the web in its own interest.
Fast forward to 2018, and the story could not be more different. Not only does Google’s Chrome dominate, but Chrome’s engine, Blink, has a reach that extends even further. A variation of software called WebKit (which Apple uses to run its Safari browser), Google’s Blink engine is open source, meaning that anyone who’s interested in designing a browser can essentially just build a shell and drop Blink, the web’s most widely used engine, right in.
It’s especially appealing because browsers are no picnic to construct. As Drew DeBruyne, Director of Program Management for Microsoft Edge told me in 2015:
“Browsers aren’t trivial to build. There are very few organizations in the world, whether they’re companies or open source organizations, that can mount that sort of effort.”
And so most companies just use Blink. It would be ridiculous not to! They can not only snag Blink more or less unchanged, but also the browsers that employ it can leverage benefits like Chrome’s huge library of extensions. That’s why Vivaldi uses it, as does the “Silk” browser on Amazon’s tablets, and even Microsoft’s Edge browser for Android. So too, the rumors say, will Microsoft’s next browser that will take Edge’s place, codenamed Anaheim.
This is bad for a few reasons. Chrome will be free to continue resting on its laurels (and devouring your laptop’s battery) as it tightens its stranglehold on the internet. Websites will be increasingly incentivized to design with Blink in mind, further consolidating Chrome’s power by giving what competitors still exist a steeper hill to climb. And while Firefox is still fighting the good fight, the departure of a Chrome competitor with serious financial backing necessarily strengthens Chrome’s position.
Then there’s the matter of Google itself. With control of the web’s most widely used browser, the world’s most widely used search engine, and a huge slice of the web’s market in ads, Google enjoys a whole host of increasingly perverse incentives. It’s a dynamic we’ve already seen in play when Google’s crusade against “annoying ads” just happened to create demand for the kind of ads it sells while simultaneously ignoring that the tracking ads it traffics in are icky in their own right. It’s a dynamic we’re all but guaranteed to see in play again.
So what to do?
While Microsoft Edge was a laudable effort to unseat Chrome—or at least challenge it—it couldn’t accomplish anything by simply existing. Despite benchmarks that show Edge’s EdgeHTML engine is superior to Blink in various ways, its benefits weren’t quite enough to get users to switch. Microsoft’s decision to stop pouring resources into a browser that nobody uses makes perfect sense.
But it would be a waste for Microsoft to simply scuttle all the work that’s been done, even if it can’t bear the cost of continuing it, wouldn’t it? Historically, there is something of a solution to this problem: Open source.
As IBM’s recent multi-billion dollar purchase of open-source company Red Hat illustrated, there’s plenty of value in software that’s given freely. While Microsoft couldn’t make Edge work, maybe someone else could repurpose its engine. After all, it already exists.
There’s precedent for this (admittedly ballsy) act, which Microsoft should remember well, having been on the receiving end of it. In 1998, as Netscape Navigator was losing the First Browser War to none other than Internet Explorer, its owners took this drastic step and formed a little open-source organization you might have heard of called Mozilla. Firefox, with its open-source Gecko engine, is also firmly under Chrome’s heel after its own years at the top, but the two together, with Edge freed from its shackles by going open source, might stand a chance at beating back Google’s growing empire in the absence of drastic anti-trust action (for which there is also a precedent).
For its part, Microsoft has engaged with the question of open sourcing Edge, and offered a soft “no,” saying on the Edge developers website that “[We] don’t currently plan to fully open-source Microsoft Edge or EdgeHTML.” Might that change? It’s impossible to know, but Microsoft has been trending hard towards embracing open-source software as the bulk of its business increasingly revolves around the hardware in its Azure cloud, instead of software that it sells. Earlier this year, Microsoft bought GitHub, an enormous library of open-source code.
Yes, Microsoft Edge may be dead on arrival, and Google Chrome may be consolidating an endless empire. But Microsoft knows from experience that a bold move can strike at the heart of a growing browser monopoly. The only question is whether Microsoft will resist wielding the very same weapon that felled it so many years ago.