What Microsoft's 'full-Chromium' Edge browser brings to the table

Microsoft hasn't yet officially launched a preview of its upcoming Chromium-based Edge browser. But a functional early version has already leaked, making this a good time to see what's coming.

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Microsoft

Nearly three months ago, Microsoft waved the browser white flag, saying it would scrap Edge's original rendering engine and replace it with Blink, the engine that also powers Google's Chrome.

By going "full-Chromium," Microsoft has upended its browser strategy in a way not seen since a disastrous decision in 2014 that forced users to upgrade to newer versions of Internet Explorer (IE). In reality, there was little downside to the radical move toward Chromium: IE is on legacy life support and if Edge slipped any lower in user share it would simply vanish.

Microsoft has yet to officially launch a preview of full-Chromium Edge, but with the recent leak of a functional early version, the time is right to start asking the important questions about the browser.

We've answered those we thought most significant for now and will regularly revisit that list with additions and rewrites as Microsoft releases, tests, re-releases and re-tests its built-on-Chromium browser.

Why is Microsoft going full-Chromium on Edge?

Good question. There are multiple answers.

According to Joe Belfiore, a corporate vice president in the Windows group, Microsoft's motivation was altruistic. "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," he said.

Users would be excused for not accepting Belfiore's statement as the only reasons.

It's just as likely that Edge's dismal adoption rate - 12% of all Windows 10 PCs last month - and Chrome's overwhelming lead (67% in February) were among the reasons for going Chromium. Other justifications may have included an expected decrease in developer head count, increased revenue from Bing if Edge's share expands and a release cycle faster than Redmond could generate on its own.

Do I need to be in the Windows Insider program to try full-Chromium Edge?

No.

Although no official word has come out, the leaked build of Edge installed and operated on Windows 10 PCs not assigned to Insider. Also of note: There are no Insider programs for Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, and while Microsoft may downplay Edge's use on those platforms, it will certainly want to encourage pre-release testing.

To sign up to be notified of the official launch of the full-Chrome Edge preview, users should register at this site by giving Microsoft an email address.

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Microsoft will let users know when the new Chromium-based Edge goes into public preview.

Will full-Chromium Edge be a straight-out Chrome clone?

No, it doesn't seem like it will.

It's foolish to rate the retooled Edge at this point, based on a leaked version that may, or may not, represent even the opening round of betas, much less a final.

But there is an Edge bent to the leaked preview based on Chromium 75, with a Microsoft-made menu - reached by clicking the ellipsis at the right of the tab bar - and minor other tweaks here and there. Put them side by side at this point, however, and it's difficult to tell them apart.

We expect that will change.

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Full-Chromium Edge looks very much like Chrome at this point, although this menu differs.

Will full-Chromium Edge be Windows 10-only, like "original Edge?"

No, it will not.

When Belfiore announced that Microsoft would retool Edge with Chromium, he said, "Microsoft Edge will now be delivered and updated for all supported versions of Windows."

The implication was that full-Chromium Edge would run on the same editions as Chrome: Windows 7, Windows 8.1 and Windows 10. Belfiore also asserted that "we expect this work to enable us to bring Microsoft Edge to other platforms like macOS," which would make it Microsoft's first cross-platform browser since the company dumped Internet Explorer for the Mac in 2003.

Does full-Chromium Edge rely on Google's services like Chrome?

Are you crazy? Microsoft may have gone all Chromium in an attempt to salvage what it can, but it's removed the Google services tied to Chrome and replaced them with its own.

Edge entrusts browser sync, for instance, to a Microsoft Account rather than one from Google. Bing is the default search engine for Edge. And Microsoft's browser relies on Windows Defender SmartScreen, not Google's Smart Browsing, to block users from reaching potentially malicious websites.

Will Edge be able to run add-ons available for Chrome?

Theoretically, yes.

On March 26, Microsoft opened (again) a mart for Edge Insider add-ons. The 118 extensions were, of course, just a fraction of those offered in the Chrome Web Store, so the implication was that Microsoft had tested and/or validated the ones it showed with full-Chromium Edge.

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Microsoft's already stocked Edge extensions market with more than 100 add-ons. Expect more - a lot more - by the time the revamped browser reaches final form.

How often will Microsoft upgrade full-Chromium Edge?

About eight times a year.

Because Edge, like Chrome, will rely on Chromium's progress, it will almost certainly refresh on Chromium's schedule. Developers working the Chromium project branch the code - lock down the changes by saving the build as a separate instance for the testing, bug fixing and polishing that leads to a stable release - every six or eight weeks.

Google has Chrome on that same cadence; approximately six and a half weeks after each branch, Google issues a stable version. For example, the current Chrome 73 branched Jan. 24 and shipped in stable on March 12. Chrome 75, the version of the leaked full-Chromium Edge, will branch April 18 and release as stable on June 4.

There's no reason why Microsoft wouldn't follow the Chromium-set tempo for Edge. To do otherwise would make for headaches at the least, make much of full-Chromium's benefits moot at worst.

How will full-Chromium Edge be updated?

Microsoft has not yet said. All it's pledged is that Edge will be updated "on a more frequent cadence." That means it must be separated from Windows 10's twice-a-year tempo.

Microsoft could follow Google's example and update/upgrade Edge with an in-browser mechanism. Or it could use the existing services, notably Windows Update and the platforms that rely on it, including Windows Server Update Services (WSUS). We'd bet on the second option.

If Microsoft handles Edge with Windows Update, it will have another decision to make: Roll out an Edge update at the same time as Google refreshes Chrome or wait until the next available Patch Tuesday.

The first would insert yet another update into Microsoft's already crowded schedule - for Windows 10, now as many as four times monthly - while the second would often leave a dangerous gap between Chrome and Edge security updates, perhaps giving hackers time to determine the vulnerability (in Chrome) and exploit it (in Edge).

This year, for example, Chrome's release schedule - Edge's, too, if full-Chromium were up and running - doesn't sync with Microsoft's Patch Tuesday calendar.

chromium edge 4 Microsoft

If full-Chromium Edge was available now and Microsoft used its Patch Tuesday to deliver browser updates, many would come as much as three weeks after Chrome was refreshed to the same code.

Will Edge mimic Chrome's march of builds, from Canary to Dev to Beta to Stable?

Yes.

In notes accompanying the Microsoft Edge Insider add-on - an extension to deliver announcements of new features, known problems and fixes for those problems within the browser - Microsoft said, "This extension is for Insider build channels ('canary,' 'dev,' and 'beta') only." The three labels are identical to the progressively more stable builds Google maintains for Chrome.

Full-Chromium Edge's Stable build will be what is issued to Windows 10 users not participating in the Edge Insider program.

The Microsoft Edge Insider add-on will also let testers change the build channel from, say, Canary to Dev or Beta to Dev to see more- or less-polished versions.

When will Microsoft officially open the full-Chromium Edge preview? Soon.

In December, Microsoft said it would have a public preview "ready in early 2019." The "early" part of the year is about over, according to our calendar. (It's already spring.)

A likely debut date would be next month, when on April 9 Microsoft will unveil the month's security updates and could also begin distributing the year's first Windows 10 feature upgrade, designated 1903 in the company's yymm format.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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