Microsoft's new Edge browser: Boon, bust or both?

Mixed messages from metrics firms hint at user growth but usage decline; the latter could upset Microsoft's revenue plans for Windows 10

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A growing portion of Windows 10 users last month ran the new Edge browser, according to one analytics firm. But another metrics vendor claimed the opposite, saying Edge usage had slipped throughout the month.

Both could be right.

Because Edge, the default for Windows 10, is Microsoft's browser of the future, figuring out how it's doing is important when grading one of the Redmond, Wash. company's goals for its new OS: To get customers off the image-challenged 20-year-old Internet Explorer (IE) and onto a browser better able to compete with Google's hard-charging Chrome.

California-based Net Applications, which tracks user share -- an estimate of the fraction of the world's online users who ran a particular browser in a given month -- pegged Edge at just over 2% for August, a significant jump from July. Microsoft released Windows 10 on July 29.

However, the percentage of Windows 10 users who ran Edge climbed much less sharply. With Windows 10's user share at 5.2% for August -- and because Edge works only on Windows 10 -- the browser was run by 39% of its potential users (2.03% divided by 5.21%). That was up from 36% in July.

A gain is a gain is a gain, but the fact that Edge was used by a minority of Windows 10 users in August must trouble Microsoft, which has banked on Edge serving as a cornerstone of both the new OS and its browser strategy going forward.

If that's the case, the measurement of Edge by Dublin-based StatCounter will only increase the anxiety in Redmond, Wash., home of Microsoft.

StatCounter tracks usage share, an estimate of the volume of online activity by users of a specific browser. Unlike Net Applications, which tallies unique visitors to its clients' websites, StatCounter counts page views. That can skew its results if, say, Edge users are less active, on average, than those running Chrome. One user of Google's browser, as measured by Net Applications, who surfs to 10 pages would generate five times the usage on StatCounter than another user who surfed to only two pages with Edge.

According to StatCounter, Edge usage peaked on July 30, the day after its launch, at 20.1% of those running Windows 10, but then slowly declined throughout August. By the final seven says of that month, Edge's usage as a percentage of Windows 10 had drooped to an average of 14.5%, down from the 17.2% average for the first seven days of August.

The numbers themselves were not as important as the trend they illustrated: Down, even as more people adopt Windows 10.

(The other browser that can be tracked as a percentage of its potential is Apple's Safari, which runs only on the Cupertino, Calif. firm's OS X. Safari, as a fraction of OS X, held steady in July and August at 66%, even though the usage share of the Mac operating system slipped from the first to the second month.)

The reports from both Net Applications and StatCounter are puzzling in that they show Edge being used by a minority of Windows 10 users and generating an even smaller fraction of Windows 10's online usage. Because Edge is set as the default browser during Windows 10 setup -- even if another had been tapped as the default in Windows 7 or 8.1 before upgrading to 10 -- and since the general belief is that defaults of any kind are rarely changed by users, the expectation was that Edge would be the browser of choice on Windows 10.

Microsoft certainly thought that, or it would not have gone to the trouble of making Edge the default and crafting a more complicated process to change to a competitor. That meant it had to be willing to take heat for the move from customers as well as from rival Mozilla, whose CEO blasted the switch as, "Throw[ing] away the choice your customers have made about the Internet experience they want, and replac[ing] it with the Internet experience Microsoft wants them to have."

It's possible to interpret the small increase in Edge's user share (estimated by Net Applications) as a trend that will continue as more mainstream Windows users adopt 10. Under that theory, the enthusiastic users who were first in line for Windows 10 were more knowledgeable about Windows in general, and so were more likely to quickly switch from Edge to another browser than will be the general population.

But Edge's decline in usage share (measured by StatCounter) could be just as true, signaling that its users are relatively inactive online even as their numbers grow.

If the latter is accurate, Microsoft will suffer financially. The company has acknowledged that it must find new revenue for Windows 10 as it promotes the OS as a service, a strategy that drove both the free upgrade offer and the promise to upgrade it free of charge for a decade. One of the planned revenue generators was to be Microsoft's Bing search engine, which not surprisingly, is both tightly integrated throughout Windows 10 and the default provider for Edge.

A lower-than-anticipated usage of Edge means fewer searches on Bing, which means fewer search result ads displayed, which means less money to Microsoft.

Which means Microsoft can't be completely happy with Edge so far.

Edges usage share slumps Data: StatCounter

Edge's usage share as a percentage of Windows 10 -- the only OS on which the browser runs -- has fallen since 10's debut in late July, a troubling trend for Microsoft's revenue strategy.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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