FAQ: Microsoft sharpens Edge

The company's new Chromium-based browser will officially arrive in final form in January. Here's what you need to know about it ahead of the rollout.

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Microsoft will release the polished version of its overhauled Edge browser in less than 10 weeks.

While the new Edge has been built using technologies from a fierce rival — Google, which controls two-thirds of the global user share — it's also an attempt by Redmond to resurrect its own browser fortunes. Edge, the old Edge, the browser that debuted alongside Windows 10 four years ago, was roundly rejected by users.

Now, Microsoft wants a second chance. But will customers grant the company a mulligan?

We don't know. But we do know answers to a variety of other important questions about Edge Part Deux. In fact, we have more answers than space, so we'll revisit second-chance Edge before that January 2020, roll-out arrives.

When will Microsoft ship a polished version of Edge? Jan. 15, 2020 will be the date of "general availability," or GA, a Microsoft term for a production-quality release.

Chrome calls this "Stable," a label that Microsoft has also used, at times alongside GA.

What version of Chromium will the first Stable version of Edge be based on? Version 79.

Chromium numbers its versions as M78, M79, M80 and so on. Those numbers correspond to the Chrome identifiers. Thus, M79 was wrapped up Oct. 17 and promoted to Chrome Beta 79 Oct. 31; it's slated to reach release as Chrome Stable 79 (or just Chrome 79) on Dec. 10.

Why does that Jan. 15 date sound familiar? The date you're probably thinking of is Jan. 14, 2020, the end of support for Windows 7 and the retirement of the decade-old OS.

More on Windows 7, Edge and the two dates a bit later.

What happens to the old Edge — what Microsoft's been calling "legacy Edge" but which cynics might dub "dull Edge" — when Microsoft releases the Chromium Edge, and we download and deploy it? Ooooh. Good question.

Microsoft will "hide" the old Edge when the new Edge is installed. "Installing the Stable channel of the next version of Microsoft Edge at system-level will cause the current version of Microsoft Edge to be hidden," Edge documentation stated.

The old Edge isn't being scrubbed from the device because Microsoft will allow IT admins — not end users — to retain the earlier Edge and run that alongside Chromium Edge. Not surprisingly, group policies are involved in this. (For basic instruction on how to do this, check out this document.)

Will Chromium Edge force-change the browser default to itself? No.

That's a major change — seismic, really — from the hijinks Microsoft pulled with Edge when the browser debuted inside Windows 10 in mid-2015. In a fit of insecurity, Microsoft made Edge the default, then added insult to injury by requiring users to jump through a Hula factory full of hoops to name a rival as the default instead. Later, Microsoft continued the shenanigans by reverting to Edge-as-default whenever Windows 10 received a new feature upgrade.

That's not going to happen this time, Microsoft said. "If you have set a different browser as your default, we do not assume ourselves as the default. We keep that default, we do not touch that," said Colleen Williams, a senior program manager on the Edge team, during a presentation last week at Microsoft's Ignite conference.

Only if old-Edge was the Windows 10 default will Chromium-Edge end up taking that spot. (Because Edge is new to several OSes, including Windows 7 and macOS, Chromium Edge will probably not be the default on Jan. 15.)

How often will Microsoft upgrade the new Edge? Every six weeks. That's what Microsoft says now.

Old-Edge, of course, was refreshed just twice annually, in each of the two feature upgrades Microsoft issues each year. But new Edge, like Chrome and other niche browsers built atop Chromium, will update about four times more often.

Earlier this year, other Microsoft managers told users not to expect a cadence like Chrome's. "We're not beholden to six weeks or four weeks or something like that," said Chris Heilmann in June.

Still unclear, however: How closely, if at all, Edge's upgrades will sync with Chrome's. The first Edge release won't be synchronized at all. Chrome 79 is currently scheduled to release on Dec. 10, or five weeks before Edge 79.

What about security updates? As does Chrome, Edge will patch vulnerabilities in each major upgrade. The latest version of Chrome, v.78, for example, contained 37 fixes.

But because Google typically patches Chrome one or more times in between each upgrade, Edge users should expect the same from Microsoft. The company confirmed that, more or less, with the line, "Security and compatibility updates will be shipped as needed" in Edge's documentation.

Again, as an example, Chrome 78, which was released Oct. 22, or nearly three weeks ago, has been patched twice since then: once on Oct. 31 with two fixes and again on Nov. 6 with four.

Exactly when — in relation to Chrome — Microsoft will patch Edge is another unanswered question. Once Edge has gone Stable, will Microsoft release its security-only updates on the same day as Google does Chrome's? Or later. And if later, how much later?

Those are important queries because if patching is not synchronized, it may be possible for criminals to gain insight into flaws that have been fixed in Chrome (and Chromium) but not yet patched in Edge, then use the knowledge to attack the latter browser.

Now that Edge includes IE mode, will Microsoft dump the IE11 browser like a penny stock gone bad? At the Ignite conference, Microsoft's Williams said, "We get that question a lot."

Her answer seemed clear-cut. "IE11 is not going anywhere," she asserted. "The introduction of IE mode does not mean that we change support for IE11. That continues to be supported on the lifecycle of the OS on which it ships." (In anther presentation at Ignite, Steve Rugh, a principal program manager, said, "Currently, there's not a plan to do that" when asked by an audience member whether Microsoft would remove IE11 from Windows.)

According to those operating system life cycles, IE11 is to be supported on, say, Windows 10, forever — since Windows 10 is to evolve a time or two each year but will never be replaced.

However, Computerworld has maintained that the life of the separate, stand-alone application known as IE11 will come to an end.

Retaining IE11, for example, in Windows 10 when the OS also boasts a browser (Edge) that offers an integrated IE mode, smacks of unnecessary redundancy. If IE mode performs as Microsoft promises, what purpose does a separate IE11 serve?

Even Windows 7 — set to reach support expiration in two months — benefits from Edge's IE mode. Microsoft's offer of extending Windows 7 security support for up to three more years — until January 2023 — meant IE was still required. But shouldn't IE mode suffice?

Microsoft may say today that it will let IE11 hang around, but there's nothing to stop the company — nor would it be remarkable considering past moves, like shortening several IE versions' support by years — from announcing a change tomorrow.

(Ironically, the fact that Microsoft employees invariably use very similar phrasing to describe IE11's support, as if it was rote call and response, reduces confidence in the this-browser-will-live-forever pledge.)

Computerworld will stick with its forecast that Microsoft will eliminate IE11 and tell users to rely solely on IE mode in Edge. Maintaining two identical browsers simply makes no sense.

How long will Microsoft support each version of Edge? Until the next Stable build launches.

At Ignite, Microsoft said it will support only the "latest" Stable and Beta channel releases. Once a build ages out, replaced by a newer Stable or Beta, the former falls off support. This is exactly how rival browsers, notably Chrome and Firefox, treat support.

Here's an example: Microsoft launches Edge 79 on Jan. 15, 2020. The next Edge, version 80, is slated to release Feb. 26 (that's six weeks from Jan. 15). From Jan. 15 to Feb. 26, Microsoft supports Edge 79. When that's replaced by 80, 79's support expires and Microsoft starts supporting 80.

On what operating systems will Edge run? In general terms, Windows and macOS. A version for Linux will be "available in the future," Microsoft has said, but it has not provided details or a timetable.

More specifically, Edge will run on every supported version of Windows and Windows Server, including Windows 7 (now and, of course, even after 7's retirement), Windows 8.1, Windows 10 and Windows Server 2008 R2 and later.

Interestingly, the Windows 10 support for Edge extends to all flavors of that OS, including Windows 10 S Mode and Windows 10 LTSC (Long-term Servicing Channel). The latter, a special edition that receives only security updates during its lifetime — thus, its at-start feature set will not change — is the most intriguing on the list. Microsoft never packaged the old-Edge with Windows 10 LTSC, only IE11, because it argued that Edge needed to evolve and that feature evolution contradicted the premise of the unchanging operating system.

Apparently, the fact that full-Chromium Edge will refresh every six weeks — as opposed to the every-six-month cadence of old-Edge — meant that a browser that changes constantly is a better fit to LTSC than one that only changes occasionally.

Weird.

It's unknown how Microsoft will verbally square the circle here.

What's the top enterprise feature in Chromium Edge? There are several to choose from, but we point to IE mode.

The two-browser solution Microsoft introduced in 2015 was clunky: sites designated to open in IE automatically launched IE11 — the full browser — yanking users out of Edge and dropping them into the vastly-different UI of IE11. Worse for Microsoft, the dual — and dueling — browsers motivated customers to ignore Edge. If employees required two browsers, one for legacy sites (IE11) and another for all the rest, why not select a more web-compatible browser as the second? There was no reason, other than loyalty to Microsoft, to stick with Edge. Instead, enterprises skewed toward Chrome.

Instead, Microsoft has managed to keep sites and apps requiring IE on a tab inside new-Edge. The result? "This allows you to have one browser for backwards compatibility. And a modern browser so you can stay in one spot," said Williams.

Although it's still unclear how IE mode works on a technical level — Does it emulate IE inside Edge? Does it simply display the content there, but IE11 renders it? Microsoft hasn't said — the usage mechanism is very much like what's current in Windows 10. Admins create a list — called the Enterprise Mode Site list — of websites and web apps that should be rendered by Internet Explorer or alternately instruct all intranet sites to be drawn by IE, then set some group policies.

Does everyone get IE mode in Edge? No.

Only Enterprise and Education licenses — the former is the most expensive commercial license — are able to use IE mode. And the only way to enable and manage it are through group policies, putting the mode's management almost exclusively in the hands of IT administrators.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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