Why Microsoft's Edge browser is missing its edge

More than a year after its introduction, Edge remains underwhelming and a very much a work in progress

The introduction of Windows 10 in October 2014 also brought along a new default web browser named Edge. The company has been touting Edge as a replacement for Internet Explorer (IE), which is now into its third decade of service for the company. But user adoption of the new browser isn't piling up the way the company would probably like.

Windows 10 currently claims a 16 percent desktop share, according to NetMarktShare, while Edge represents only 3.07 percent of desktop browsers. That means that only roughly 1 in 5 Windows 10 users is running Edge to visit websites at present.

What supposedly gives Edge an edge?

If you visit the Microsoft Edge home pages, you'll get a guided tour and lots of breathless hype explaining why Edge is the fastest, safest, most standards-compliant and coolest browser around. Microsoft touts its improved battery life when streaming video, and also makes much of its tie-in with Ask Cortana and address-bar search capabilities. You can preview your open web pages by hovering your mouse cursor over open tabs in the Edge window. This produces a thumbnail view not unlike those you get when hovering over applications in the Windows 10 taskbar. Edge also supports on-page annotations you can share with others or save into OneNote. Edge also offers more tablet-friendly capabilities, including a full-screen mode that's well-suited to take over a tablet's on-screen real estate.

The Edge battery brouhaha

Microsoft presents an interesting chart on the Edge home page showing that "when streaming HD video, Microsoft Edge lasts up to 43 percent longer than Firefox and 70 percent longer than Chrome."

Results from an independent June 27, 2016 PCWorld test tell a somewhat different story, however. Using a special testing tool call EMBC BrowsingBench designed to eliminate variability over time and across multiple web interactions, author Gordon Mah Ung did indeed observe that Edge won the battery life game. In his chart of results, Edge topped the list at 385 minutes of battery life, with Chrome in second place at 355 minutes (that's not a 70 percent difference by any stretch). Opera came in next at 352 minutes, Firefox at 338 minutes, and IE at 335 minutes, as shown in the chart below.

browser life 155 nits tosh 4k i7 embc pcw load

Under a light browsing load with some Flash content, Microsoft offers the best and the worst browser for battery life.

In his story, Ung also makes the valid point that testing web browser behavior is a tricky proposition. The mix of sources and the kinds of interactions that fall into a test can alter the results dramatically. It's not meant to suggest that Microsoft's test results are wrong or misrepresented. Rather, it's to observe that Microsoft could easily structure testing to show Edge in the best possible light, and the other browsers less so. Paul Thurrott explains Edge battery life in two recent stories (Microsoft Touts Battery Life Advantages of Edge Browser and Edge Battery Life Will Improve with Windows 10 Anniversary Update) and makes the point that Edge is good and getting better at using power efficiently. The group behind the Opera browser is a little less charitable, however, and has posted a blog entitled "Over the edge?" that shows its v39 browser with native ad blocker and power saver enabled runs 22 percent longer than Edge, and 35 percent longer than Chrome v51.

The one thing no one has measured thus far: How much users really care about the battery life impact of whatever browser they're running.

Edge extensions underwhelm

Support for browser extensions opens up ways to customize and condition browser behavior. The earliest versions of Edge included built-in support for Adobe Flash, asm.js (an intermediate programming language to support web applications), and a PDF reader, but did not continue legacy support for Browser Helper Objects or ActiveX controls like those found in IE. Support for third-party extensions came with a March, 2016 insider preview release and made their public debut with the Windows 10 Anniversary Update release on August 2, 2016.

So far, support for Edge extensions has been somewhat underwhelming. Edge extensions come from the Microsoft Store, which as of mid-August, 2016 featured exactly 13 items. These are (in alphabetical order):

  • Adblock
  • Adblock Plus
  • Amazon Assistant
  • Evernote Web Clipper
  • LastPass: Free Password Manager
  • Mouse Gestures
  • Office Online
  • OneNote Web Clipper
  • Page Analyzer
  • Pinterest Save Button
  • Reddit Enhancement Suite
  • Save to Pocket
  • Translator for Microsoft Edge

Of these 13 items, five are from Microsoft itself (Mouse Gestures, Office Online, OneNote Web Clipper, and Translator). By contrast, the Chrome web store features hundreds of extensions. There is some overlap across categories, but here they are the following:

Even assuming a high degree of overlap, this presents a formidable gap for Microsoft to leap, or rather, for it to convince developers to leap on its behalf. Parity could be a looooooooooong time coming.

Another issue with Edge

Microsoft likes to mention that Edge is standards compliant, so I thought it might be interesting to see how the results at HTML5Test stack up (you can run your own test right now if you like). This is a set of 283 individual tests across 27 categories of HTML5 compliance and support for which the maximum possible score is 555 points. Currently, Chrome leads the group with 492 points and Firefox (461 points) just edges out Edge (460 points). Safari trails with the low score of 370 points. Opera is not included in the latest batch of tests, but its most recent score was 489 points, which put it in second place between Chrome and Firefox. IE clocks in at a pretty dismal 312 points.

What this shows is that Edge is indeed relatively standards compliant, but also that it isn't leading the way. As somebody who's written about HTML and web development technologies since 1994, I'd really like to see Microsoft step up and start pushing the upper edge of this envelope. So far, that's not happening.

Edging into the future

Now more than a year after its initial introduction, Edge remains a work in progress. In my experience, there's too much work involved in using Edge day-to-day, with not enough progress to make its use worthwhile. And I'm not alone. If you visit the browsers and email forum at TenForums.com, you'll find hundreds upon hundreds of users grousing about Edge, particularly from a usability standpoint. I will cheerfully confess that after having spent a fair amount of time with Edge, Chrome remains my go-to browser. I also still prefer IE to Edge when it comes to visiting Microsoft web pages for downloads and interactions that either require or do better when running a Microsoft browser.

It will be interesting to see if Microsoft can entice enough developers to build extensions to achieve critical mass and improve support for web standards like HTML5. If so, marketshare for this browser will start edging up. If not…

Related video: Installing Edge browser extensions

This story, "Why Microsoft's Edge browser is missing its edge" was originally published by CIO.

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