King Chrome: Microsoft's browsers sidelined on its own OS

What's the chance Edge can contest Chrome's lock on the enterprise?

Enterprises may say they are committed to Microsoft's browsers, that they continue to define the venerable Internet Explorer (IE) as their employees' standard. But reality is different, an analyst argued Thursday.

"Microsoft retains a very strong relationship with [enterprise] IT," said David Michael Smith, of Gartner, in an interview. "Most enterprises still have a 'standard' browser, and most of the time, that's something from Microsoft. These days it's IE11. But we've found that people actually use Chrome more than IE."

Smith, who was wrapping up a rewrite and update of a 2015 research report on browsers in the enterprise, was adamant that, as Gartner at the time forecast, Chrome is the kingpin. "It's the most-used browser in enterprise" he said.

IE retains a sizable share -- Smith called it "a significant presence" -- largely because it's still required in most companies. "There are a lot of [enterprise] applications that only work in IE, because [those apps] use plug-ins," Smith said, ticking off examples like Adobe Flash, Java and Microsoft's own Silverlight. "Anything that requires an ActiveX control needs IE."

Many businesses have adopted the two-prong strategy that Gartner and others began recommending years ago: Keep a "legacy" browser to handle older sites, services and web apps, but offer another for everything else. That approach lets employees access the old, but does not punish them with a creaky, sub-standard browser for general-purpose surfing.

Under such a model, Internet Explorer has played, and continues to play, the legacy role.

For the second half of the two-prong practice, enterprises offer workers a "modern" browser, one that largely if not entirely disposes with plug-ins, hews to accepted Internet standards and quickly renders pages and apps, typically by calling on the machine's graphics processor as well as its CPU.

Chrome, said Smith, is now the "overwhelming choice" as the modern enterprise browser.

Microsoft hopes to change that with its Windows 10-centric Edge browser. Repeatedly dubbed "modern" by Microsoft, Edge can run alongside IE11 on the same device, a first for Microsoft. With IE11 and Edge, Microsoft contends, enterprise customers can wage the two-prong strategy of legacy and modern, all within Redmond's own ecosystem.

The problem with the plan is that Edge runs only on Windows 10, and since Windows 10 has yet to replace Windows 7, Microsoft's own modern browser is unavailable to most customers.

Smith wasn't optimistic that Edge would supplant Chrome, even when Windows 10 is widely deployed on corporate computers in the next few years. "Edge certainly will have opportunities" once Windows 10 is the enterprise-standard OS, "but I would say that Chrome has a lot of momentum, largely for the fact that it is so popular on the Internet."

Smith's reference was to Chrome's surge last year into first place in the browser market, pushing aside both IE and Edge. As of April, analytics vendor Net Applications' estimated Chrome's global share at 59%, IE+Edge at 24%, or less than half. A year earlier, the rivals had been neck and neck at 41%.

And enterprises are happy with Chrome, Smith asserted. Although Microsoft's browsers retain the decades-old manageability advantage that kept so many enterprises locked into IE for so long, Chrome is no slouch. "Chrome has gotten to the point that it's manageable enough for most enterprises," said Smith.

Microsoft still relies on manageability as it beats the drum for Edge. Earlier this month, for example, Microsoft boasted of the group policies added for Edge with Windows 10's April "Creators Update" feature upgrade, aka version 1703.

But with a "good enough" set of group policies -- Smith estimated Google supports Chrome with around 300 policies, including ones that control how the browser is updated through the Google Update tool -- Microsoft's edge, once Edge appears on most desktops, may not budge the usurper.

Not everyone is ready to write off Edge's chances, however.

"We really don't see Edge yet [used by our customers], because we really don't see Windows 10 yet," said Gary Schare, president of Browsium, a maker of enterprise browser management tools and formerly the head of product management for IE. But of the smattering of customers who have put Windows 10 on PCs, about half have assigned Edge as the modern browser. (The other half adopted Chrome.)

There will come an inflection point, Schare contended, when IE as a legacy browser will no longer be needed, and a single, modern browser will serve all needs. The true test for Edge, Schare said, will be when that inflection point is reached.

"I think the drumbeat about Edge is finally getting through to people," Schare said in an interview Wednesday. "Microsoft is clearly serious about Edge."

To Schare, Google's latest move in supporting Chrome in the enterprise -- a bundle that packaged Chrome, management templates and a legacy-capable add-on -- is evidence of the Mountain View, Calif. company's recognition that Microsoft, and Edge, remain a threat.

"Google doesn't want to see [Edge becoming the primary browser]," said Schare. "But at some point, Microsoft and Google will duke it out for the enterprise browser."

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