Microsoft wants you to beta-test its Chrome-derived Edge browser

Why bother? Privacy and productivity, says Windows leader Joe Belfiore. The overhauled browser should be ready for a full release by early 2020.

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Stephen Shankland
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The Chromium-based version of Microsoft's Edge browser is now in beta testing.

The Chromium-based version of Microsoft's Edge browser is now in beta testing.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Microsoft released the first beta version of its overhauled Edge web browser Tuesday -- and it wants you to help squash its bugs to smooth the way for the mainstream release in coming months. Microsoft's new Edge is built on top of Chromium, Google's open-source browser foundation for Chrome. The new Edge beta is available for Windows 7, Windows 10 and MacOS.

Until now, Microsoft had only released relatively unpolished Canary and dev versions that are updated rapidly with the latest changes but that aren't as well tested. The beta version is a step in the company's plan to once again offer a web browser that's useful and influential -- and that restores Microsoft's influence in the browser technology world.

"We're ready to take on a larger audience," said Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of Microsoft Windows Experiences. "We want data about how the browser performs. Getting to a wider audience helps us improve the quality."

You can download the new browser beta at Microsoft's Edge Insider site.

Microsoft hopes to release the stable version of Edge in late 2019 or early 2020, he said. After that, perhaps after a few months, Microsoft will swap out the old Edge so all Windows 10 users get the new Chromium version.

You might be happy with Chrome or whatever other browser you're using, but Microsoft has a lot of customers, and there's significant interest in the new Chromium-based Edge. More than 1 million copies have been downloaded, Belfiore said.

Why use the new Microsoft Edge?

So why bother downloading and installing it? Microsoft's vision for Edge is a browser that's more productive for personal and work tasks, improves your privacy with protection against online tracking, and -- if all goes well -- is faster than the competition.

"Our approach for the new Microsoft Edge browser represents a belief that your data is yours, that you are entitled to understand how it's used," Belfiore said.

Safari, Firefox, Brave and other browsers also are seeking to stand out from Chrome with more assertive stances to protect you from websites and advertisers seeking to track your online behavior.

Microsoft is also increasing its efforts to get businesses to start testing the new Edge, Belfiore added.

Most of the interface changes compared to ordinary Chrome are small for now, but one interesting change is Edge's new Collections feature, which lets you gather text, links and other information you might have sprawling across many browser tabs. Collections can be saved, shared and exported into formats like Excel spreadsheets. Microsoft debuted Edge Collections in May, but now it's available for testing in Edge Canary.

Watch this: Collections make it easier to share content on Microsoft Edge

The rise and fall of Microsoft's browser power

The company's Internet Explorer dominated web browsers 15 years ago, but Microsoft let it languish, and the company has never really caught up again even though it's grown enthusiastic about web technology in the Windows 10 era. When Windows ruled computing two decades ago, Microsoft saw browser technology as a threat since it worked on any computing system and therefore undermined Windows' power. But now that Windows no longer is dominant and Microsoft wants its software to work everywhere, web technology is now an ally.

Mozilla's Firefox challenged IE 15 years ago, but it was Google's Chrome that finally pushed it aside. Over the last decade, the arrival of iOS and Android smartphones meant even success on Windows would be a limited victory, too.

Microsoft tried to start fresh by launching a streamlined new Edge browser that stripped out much of the old IE code, but that didn't help the company's prospects. So in 2019, Microsoft threw in the towel and began rebuilding Edge on Chromium.

Microsoft offers three versions of Edge with different levels of maturity. The fourth, most stable release could come at the end of 2019 or 2020.

Microsoft offers three versions of Edge with different levels of maturity. The fourth, most stable release could come at the end of 2019 or 2020.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Silencing an independent browser voice

Microsoft's Chromium retrofit for Edge means there will be one fewer independent browser engine on the internet and that Google's technology is even more powerful.

But it also gives Microsoft a chance to be relevant in steering web technology where, in its eyes, Edge had failed. Sure, maybe the old Edge was independent, but that was only really an academic advantage given that usage was so low, Belfiore said. Microsoft can be more influential by contributing to the effort to build Chromium, he said.

"We think we can do more to balance the web with a more widely distributed browser that we're a participant in evolving than we could have with our distinct code base at lower usage," Belfiore said.

And as a practical matter for anyone using the new Edge, embracing Chrome means it should work with websites that worked with Chrome but not the old Edge.

Staying close to Chromium

With the old Edge, Microsoft nearly closed the website compatibility gap with Chrome, he said. But the effort failed because closing that last part of the gap was very difficult given the scale of the web -- but not closing meant the browser just wasn't good enough. After two years fighting that fight, Microsoft concluded drawing from and contributing to Chromium would be better.

That means Microsoft is riding Google's coattails. The company won't just clone Chrome, though. Microsoft hopes for differentiation in the Edge user interface and in website interaction matters like blocking online tracking. And it hopes to boost performance with smooth-scrolling responsiveness and lower battery usage.

Microsoft doesn't want to "fork" the underlying browser engine responsible for processing and displaying web pages -- as Google did when it separated its browser from Apple's WebKit effort. Doing so would mean Edge would again face those pesky website compatibility issues, Belfiore said.

First published Aug. 20, 9 am PT.
Update, 12:10 p.m. PT: Adds directions for downloading the new beta.