Sometimes it feels like there’s only room for four choices when it comes to web browsers on Windows: Firefox, Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Internet Explorer. You’ll find some people running Opera, too, but for the most part it’s all about the big four.
Internet Explorer is all but dead , but it's still able to bite the hand that uses it. Edge can't get no respect, Firefox struggles, and Chrome's ready to self-destruct on a dumb ad-blocking rule.
The current state of computing in general mirrors the sorry state of Web browsers in particular. And while there are no clear winners in the browser battles, there is one simple mandate: if you're still using Internet Explorer, stop! Right now!
Running Windows 10 and wondering whether to rely on Edge? It's not a bad browser, but it's about to get its internals removed to make way for plumbing that should've been there from the beginning.
Use Chrome even though Google likely scarfs up all your browsing info? In a flawed field, it's a top contender — in spite of its snooping ways and horrendous memory consumption.
Firefox? The great hope of many computer users has been, and still is constantly under development. It's still my browser of choice as my default browser.
There are, of course, other browsers to choose from. The browser you use may be "none of the above" if you use a less popular browser such as Opera.
Still, the majority of PC users rely on one or more of the aforementioned big four. Here's my take on the current state of each.
Internet Explorer: You've hit a dead end
Face it, Internet Explorer is a dead browser walking. Microsoft's Chris Jackson, writing on the official Windows IT Pro blog last week, stated it simply:
"You see, Internet Explorer is a compatibility solution. We're not supporting new Web standards for it and, while many sites work fine, developers by and large just aren't testing for Internet Explorer these days. They're testing on modern browsers."
IE isn't a browser? A "compatibility solution" translates into "the lowest common denominator" among browsers. And lack of support for new standards simply means that Microsoft has abandoned it — except for copious numbers of monthly security patches, of course.
Microsoft Edge: An appendage of Windows 10
So, if IE is the walking dead, what about Microsoft's alternative? At the moment, Edge runs only on Windows 10. At the moment, Edge is the default browser on all Windows 10 machines, but something like only four percent of all Web use goes through Edge. Four — per — cent. (I know of people who have upgraded to Win10 — and then dug IE out of the Win10 closet.)
There are lots of reasons why Edge has failed miserably: The early versions had gaping holes, and the later versions have odd spots and weird glitches. So while folks might hold their noses and use Windows' Store, it would seem that almost no one wants to run Edge in particular; and perhaps not any browser from Microsoft. (IE's presence on the Web is down to around 10 percent.)
Microsoft is planning to shed Edge's innards and replace them with the Chromium engine. That's a very big deal! Microsoft will be relying on an open-source project, Chromium that's largely dominated by Google.
It remains to be seen whether Microsoft can add enough to the periphery of Edge (better add-ons, for example) to pull in customers — to overcome the "we've already voted" inertia.
There are lots of possibilities for differentiating Edge in the browser market. Microsoft could claim supremacy in data privacy, or advance user-interface technology, or integrate Edge with other Microsoft products. But at its core, Edge will have a heart of Chrome.
That's good for all sorts of reasons: plugin compatibility, greater uniformity for webpage developers, easier transition between platforms, etc. But for Microsoft, it's also a gamble. If you can run more Web-based apps on a Windows PC with Edge-masquerading-as-Chrome, why not use a Chromebook?
Google Chrome: By popular acclaim …
Given Chrome's roughly 65 percent market share and ever more popular Chromium engine, you'd think that Google developers just couldn't make any stupid mistakes. You'd be wrong.
Google floated a controversial plan to change the Chromium engine, making it hostile to ad-blocking software. You likely know that Google derives most of its considerable revenue from advertising. So, blocking advertising strikes at the heart of Google's livelihood.
In a Wired article, Klint Finley writes:
"Proposed changes to Google's open-source browser, Chromium, on which Chrome is based, would break many existing ad blockers and other tools for blocking or changing online content. It will still be possible to block ads if the proposed changes are incorporated into Chrome, but developers would need to rewrite their Chrome extensions. Many developers are protesting the proposal, arguing that the changes would harm users."
Will Google kill the Chromium golden goose? Hard to say, in the long run. But this current proposal might have just disappeared, according to The Register. (If so, Google's harebrained-idea count just went up by one.)
Chrome does offer some solace for Windows 7 users who intend to stick with it. Unlike Microsoft, Google has every reason to keep its browser working properly on Windows 7, well after the OS's January 2020 end of life.
Firefox: Keeping the others honest
The battle between Chrome and Firefox continues to swing back and forth, with Firefox the perennial loser in terms of market share. Less than 10 percent of all Web interactions use Mozilla's browser.
The arguments for Firefox over Chrome are legion — with privacy being a key factor for most users, including me. But when both Google and Microsoft (along with the venerable Opera browser) are sharing a common Chromium engine, Firefox — and its own Gecko rendering platform — might be far less appealing to developers. (Apple, of course, continues to go its own way.)
Still, as with Chrome, there's no doubt that Mozilla and Firefox will continue to support Windows 7 to the bitter end. However long that might be.
The way forward
Odd couples are common in the computing industry, but the browser wars have engendered some truly unexpected alliances. And that's important to watch, because the future of computing appears to be centered in the browser — as I've been saying for at least a decade.
Online apps now compete effectively with traditional programs — ones that reside on your PC — in almost all categories, with the arguable exception of programs that require intense amounts of computing power. With the advent of Progressive Web Apps (another Google-led initiative), more and more online applications can now run on your desktop. The lines between local programs and browser-based programs have, in many instances, blurred almost to the point of no appreciable difference.
As computing becomes more browser-centric, it behooves us to pick the best of breed and know them in depth. At this point, that's Firefox and Chrome: both excellent choices, though for different reasons. Personally, I use both every day.
And as for the other two: friends don't let friends use IE, and Edge is still trying to find itself. If you have a question about a specific browser, feel free to email me .
IMPORTANT: Windows 7 Users: Get this Critical Update (due March)
Are you still using Windows 7?
Microsoft has warned an update coming next month is absolutely critical for users running Windows 7. Without it, computers won't be able to use any future Windows security and feature updates, leaving users extremely vulnerable to malware infections (or worse).
It's all to do with a change in the way Microsoft delivers security updates in a secure manner. Whenever Microsoft releases an update, it comes with a digital signature to prove that it came from Microsoft's servers and that the code it contains has not been tampered with.
Even with the SHA-2 security upgrade, it's important to remember that Windows 7 will no longer receive security updates past January 2020. That's because Windows 7 reaches its end of life support at that time.
Simply put: anyone running Windows 7 after January 2020 will be extra-vulnerable to hackers, malware, and cyber criminals. To keep receiving updates, users must upgrade their operating system or buy a new PC. As you know, my recommendation is to back up all your data, bite the bullet and upgrade to Windows 10. It's faster and more secure. If you don't like the new "tiles" interface in Windows 10, you can easily disable it using a small utility called StartIsBack ($3.99) which makes Windows 10 work just like Windows 7.
That's it for this month. Please share your tips or tech experiences with the rest of the Sangat. Just email me and tell me your story, and keep sending me your suggestions for column topics, along with your own favorite smartphone app recommendations and reviews so I can share them here.