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With move to rebuild Edge atop Google's Chromium, Microsoft raises white flag in browser war

After a years-long pummeling, Microsoft this week surrendered in the browser war, saying that it will junk Edge’s home-grown rendering engine and replace it with Blink, the engine that powers Google’s Chrome.

With Edge pulling code from the Chromium project, the browser will also be able to run on Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, as well as macOS.

“We intend to adopt the Chromium open source project in the development of Microsoft Edge on the desktop to create better web compatibility for our customers and less fragmentation of the web for all web developers,” wrote Joe Belfiore, a corporate vice president in the Windows group, in a post to a company blog.

Belfiore’s announcement was a stunning humiliation for Microsoft, which in the early years of this century ruled the browser world after Internet Explorer (IE) had obliterated Netscape Navigator and achieved market share in excess of 90%.

Although Edge will survive, it will no longer be a Microsoft-made browser: It will exist as a UI (user interface) wrapper around core technologies developed almost entirely by Google engineers, in the same way Opera has existed since 2013, when it ditched its own internal engine for Chromium’s Blink.

Shed share at record rates

Microsoft cast the decision as affection for, and adoption of, open-source software that would, said Belfiore, lead to an application compatible “with other Chromium-based browsers.” That would “make the web experience better” for users, web developers and corporate IT, he argued.

Not surprisingly, Belfiore declined to mention the poor showing of Edge and the years of user share declines that bled IE white. But taking up Chrome’s rendering engine – dubbed “Blink” when it forked from WebKit in 2013 – was an admission of defeat and a move of desperation.

Microsoft’s troubles were largely of its own making.

In 2014, a year before the debut of Windows 10 and its default browser Edge, Microsoft announced that it would require all Windows users to run the most-recent version of IE, and when that requirement took effect, dropped support of the others. That, combined with the glacial development pace of IE, opened the door for rivals. Millions of Windows users, when faced with a change of browsers, decided to change from IE to Chrome rather than go from one version of IE to another.

From January 2016, when the mandate went into effect, to the end of that year, Microsoft lost an astounding 22 percentage points of user share by the tally of analytics vendor Net Applications. That represented nearly half of IE’s and Edge’s share at the time. No other browser had fallen that far, that fast, in just 12 months. Although the losses weren’t as steep in 2017, Microsoft’s browsers lost an additional 35% of their remaining share that year.

Nor did Edge make up for IE’s fall from grace. The former never caught on with Windows 10 users. At its best, the browser was the first choice of about a third of them, but in November 2018, that had shrunk to approximately one out of every 10.

Microsoft had choices: It could pack it in and refuse to bother building a browser. It could keep on keeping on by continuing to watch Edge’s relevance evaporate. Or it could try to get into the mainstream tent by adopting Chrome’s rendering engine. All three smelled of failure, but the third had the least odor.

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