Today, Microsoft dukes it out with the FAANG stocks for top place in the tech stock market. But 20 years ago, Microsoft let out a big sigh of relief when it dodged a bullet.
US District Court judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who oversaw the Department of Justice vs. Microsoft, had ruled in 2000 that Microsoft was a monopoly that should be broken up into two companies. This part of his decision was overturned in 2001, or we’d be living in a very different technology world.
The root cause of Jackson’s decision? Microsoft had used its Windows monopoly to crush its web browser rival Netscape. The final decision gave Microsoft a wrist-slap and required it to give other browsers a chance to run on Windows. So what the heck is going on now with Windows 11 and Edge, Microsoft?!
In case you haven’t heard, a new Windows 11 Insider Preview build gets in the way of workarounds that enable users to set up other web browsers, such as Firefox and Chrome, as defaults for handling web links. So, for example, if I sent you an e-mail with a link to one of my favorite xkcd cartoons and you opened it in Outlook on a PC with this preview version of Windows 11, it would open in Edge — even if your preferred browser is Chrome.
This is not the first time Microsoft has tried to force Edge down users’ throats, just as it did with Internet Explorer in the 1990s. For example, in Windows 10 Insider Preview Build 17623 in 2018, Microsoft began “testing a change where links clicked on within the Windows Mail app will open in Microsoft Edge.”
This wasn’t an isolated instance. For example, in Windows 10 if you open an MSN news article, the default is to show you the page in Edge. Users are always complaining about being forced to use Edge. Last year, not long after Microsoft introduced its Chrome-based version of Edge, it pushed the revamped Edge onto all systems when they updated to Windows 10, version 2004. People were not happy.
No one much minded that legacy Edge was put out with the trash, but when people switched on their PCs they saw Edge launch itself; demand to replace your existing browser; pin itself to the desktop and taskbar; and then when you tried to open a website, it asked if you really wanted to use Firefox instead of Edge. That’s no way to win friends and influence users.
According to Daniel Aleksandersen, who created the free EdgeDeflector app, which intercepts Windows all-common embedded microsoft-edge:// links and redirects them to regular https:// links, his approximately 500,000 users can no longer avoid Edge with his program. “You can no longer bypass Microsoft Edge using apps like EdgeDeflector.” Microsoft’s new order will also block such functionality in upcoming versions of Brave and Firefox.
Aleksandersen looked deeper and found this: “Windows 10 and 11 no longer care about the default web browser setting. Microsoft even removed the default web browser setting from Windows 11. Instead of a single setting for the default web browser, customers must set individual “link associations” for the http:// and https:// protocols; as well as file associations for the .html file type. This is a huge jump in complexity compared to the previous design. It’s clearly a user-hostile move that sees Windows compromise its own product usability in order to make it more difficult to use competing products.”
As for what users can do about all this, Aleksandersen was blunt: The “best action is to complain to their local antitrust regulator or switch to Linux. Your web browser is probably the most important — if not the only — app you regularly use. Microsoft has made it clear that its priorities for Windows don’t align with its users.”
He’s right. And Microsoft is wrong to make this move. Granted, it’s in a preview build, which means it’s possible it won’t make it into a shipping version of Windows. But I expect it will.
This is no bug. This is a deliberate move throughout Windows to return to the past when your only real browser choice was the Microsoft choice. It backfired on the company then; I hope it backfires now.