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This year may see the rekindling of the browser wars, conflicts that once roiled the landscape and birthed -- and felled -- titans.
On January 15, Microsoft is set to release a new, Chromium-based Edge browser, an offering the company claims will bolster compatibility with web-based applications and enhance privacy. Experts said the browser might appeal to IT professionals through its integrated management tools and focus on enterprise software.
Chromium is an open source browser project by Google; the current version of Edge was developed using Microsoft's own tech. With the change, the two leading browsers will be based on the same engine.
Eric Klein, an analyst at VDC Research Group Inc., said it was strange, decades after the Netscape-Internet Explorer or Internet Explorer-Firefox clashes, to once again have a relevant browser war.
"It's interesting to me that what's old is new again," he said.
Klein noted that, despite its OS supremacy, Microsoft's success with its browsers has been mixed. In today's market, he said, Google Chrome and Firefox have a greater mindshare than Microsoft's offering.
"Previous versions of Internet Explorer [Microsoft's older browser] were inferior, in terms of speed and ease of use, compared to browsers like Chrome," he said.
Forrester Research analyst Andrew Hewitt said Chrome looked to be the staunchest competition for the new Edge browser.
"In the consumer market, Chrome is very much the dominant browser," he said. "We do see some differences like, in Germany, there's more Firefox use."
Through Chrome, said Enterprise Strategy Group senior analyst Mark Bowker, organizations could accomplish several things: They could hedge their bets on Microsoft, provide an improved user experience for web applications and offer a secure browser experience.
How will Microsoft convert Chrome users?
Analysts said the company's focus appears to be on the enterprise, providing interoperability with enterprise-centric software. Microsoft has made it easier for developers to port such software to Edge, making the browser friendlier to web-based applications, according to Klein.
Hewitt said Microsoft had an interest in refining the experience of using its tools, making its services available across its product portfolio.
"I also think this is a doubling-down on their Microsoft 365 strategy," he said. "It's about providing a better experience using Office tools -- like being able to see OneDrive files as you use Edge."
To lure businesses, Bowker said, Edge must deliver the best possible experience with web applications and provide IT professionals the tools they need to manage users. Companies using Chrome must have a separate console for such management, while Edge may appeal to IT pros because they can use existing Microsoft tools to do the job.
Yet luring users is about more than making a case to businesses; Microsoft will have to convince users as well. Companies today tend to let employees choose which browser they'd like to use. That makes the consumer market and personal preference a big factor in who will win the browser war, according to Hewitt.
"I think it's a two-fold strategy," he said. "[Microsoft wants] to build good confidence on the consumer side, so it trickles over to businesses. With businesses, it will not necessarily be about who's more secure, but more about, 'Look at all the cool integrations you can get if you're using Edge.' It's a productivity benefit."
For Microsoft, that could be an uphill battle given that younger workers likely grew up without using Microsoft browsers, Bowker said.
Browsers will gain prominence
The timing of Microsoft's campaign for the business browser market is not accidental. Analysts pointed to the increased prevalence of web-based applications as the answer.
"The browser [will become] more and more important," Hewitt said. "It will be where you go to work every day."
Klein said Google has a clear stake in winning the battle.
"From Google's perspective, it's all about telemetry -- taking a look at every move a user makes, similar to the way phones track every move we make," he said. "[That information] is becoming more and more important for tech companies. It's all about trying to capture as much of user interactions and workflow as possible."
"It's not only the browser wars that are part of this; the office suite wars are part of this, too," he added, noting that Microsoft and Google, via its G Suite of productivity applications, were warring in that arena, too.
Yet that focus on user data, Hewitt said, might be a point in Microsoft's favor, especially among privacy-minded companies. As Google's substantial advertising business is dependent on such data, companies may fear their browsing habits might be compromised. Microsoft, he said, doesn't rely on advertising in the way Google does.
"That's one area where Microsoft could differentiate itself," he said.
Who will win the browser war?
Analysts said it was too early to call the fight.
"It's always really hard to say," Hewitt said. "It's going to take years to see the benefits of any type of shift. It's still early, from Microsoft's perspective."
Bowker said the new Edge browser may prompt several businesses that have chosen Chrome as their standard option to rethink their approach.
"The first experience, when Edge is available mid-month, is going to be important," he said.
Holger Mueller, principal analyst at Constellation Research, said he saw the development not as a war, but as a point of convergence. With both of the leading enterprise browsers based on the same engine, he expects accelerated progress for mobile sites, as developers can devote their resources in a more concentrated way. But he expressed skepticism that Edge would overtake Chrome in the workplace.
"It's a great move by Microsoft: If you can't beat them, join them," he said, adding that this was a development that differentiated CEO Satya Nadella's Microsoft from that of his predecessor, Steve Ballmer.