From extensions to its design language, Microsoft is making the right moves

Today at its BUILD 2015 (/b) convention in San Francisco, Calif., Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) operating systems corporate vice president (CVP) Joe Belfiore let slip a key piece of the Windows puzzle.  He revealed that the new browser in the consumer-facing builds of Windows 10 would be dubbed "Edge".  The name was somewhat of a surprise, but  if we look back there were some hints.

Microsoft has long willingly given up having the fastest browser or the most cutting edge standards support, in order to strive industry best stability and compatibility with standard sites.  That was an attractive tradeoff for enterprise clients, but in recent years it caused Microsoft's once dominant Internet Explorer browser to lose consumer market share to Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Chrome and Mozilla's Firefox -- browsers that rendered webpages faster and supported more exotic fresh standards.

And then there was the challenge of mobility.  Microsoft's early attempts to transition Internet Explorer into the tablet, phablet, and smartphone space left much to be desired and fell short of mobile browser offerings from Google, Apple, Inc. (AAPL), and Opera Software ASA (STO:OPERAO).

The goal with Windows 10 was in effect to solve both of these problems and return Microsoft's browser to its tradition being the most coveted consumer browser.  To that end Microsoft announced a brand new consumer-facing browser in January under the codename "Project Spartan."

The Edge
"How's that, Bob?" -- Just as Anthony Hopkins taught Alec Baldwin that some old adventurers are hard to kill, Microsoft hopes to deliver a similar dose of code commupance to rival browsers. [Image Source: Fox]

Project Spartan would become the standard consumer-facing browser when Windows 10 shipped, although Internet Explorer 11 (IE11) would also be installed with Windows 10 as a fallback.  Enterprise clients, meanwhile would get to skip this noise and keep the traditional IE11 browser they knew and loved.

With stability requirements relaxed somewhat, Project Spartan would be blazing fast and would be developed to support both traditional and touch-enabled input factors.  The new browser would additionally feature optimized UIs to scale to a variety of screen sizes.  

Metaphorically speaking, Microsoft played its cards close to its chest, though, when it came to branding.  Until its week, it simply referred to the new browser by its codename -- Project Spartan.  Insider Preview testers -- including myself -- have been playing with the new browser since its launch in January, roughly three months ago.

Edge browser

In retrospect the first hint we got actually came shortly after the announcement of Project Spartan in Jan. 2015.  Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet wrote that her sources mentioned that "under the hood" of the new browser was an "Edge mode platform" for advanced rendering.

She noted that this new rendering engine was reportedly a branched version of the traditional Trident engine introduced with the release of Internet Explorer 4.0, all the way back in 1997.  (Microsoft's IE team senior manager Jacob Rossi had actually blogged about this in November, but it went somewhat overlooked until the introduction of Spartan in Jan.)

Perhaps it is only fitting that Microsoft's first major branch of its rendering engine in 18 years would become the name of the new browser.  Microsoft today announced that Windows 10's new default consumer browser would henceforth be named "Edge".  The Microsoft Edge browser is powered by the new engine, whose name Microsoft revealed to be EdgeHTML.

While Edge sounds like a quantum leap in naming from "Internet Explorer", it's not quite as radical a rebranding as one might expect for one simple reason -- the letter 'e'.  As the 'E' in Internet Explorer was used as the logo/icon language for the traditional browser, the decision to start the new browser's name with an 'E', means that while Microsoft is making its new browser logo a bit more ... er... edgy, the new design appears to be an evolution of the old design language, not a brand new start.

That's a pretty clever branding strategy on Microsoft's part.  It can have its cake (a feeling of freshness and a clear cut divergence from the aging IE) and eat it too (enjoy the legacy visibility of the IE brand).

Microsoft's Edge program manager Kyle Pflug also confirms one crucial rumor in an accompanying blog -- the Edge browser will feature a full fledged extension model, long a coveted feature in most competitors' browsers.  Pflug writes:

We’re excited to share Joe’s announcement that Project Spartan’s official name is Microsoft Edge. You’ll see this name coming in future Insider Preview builds of Windows 10, and coming to our web developer resources very soon.

As part of our focus on innovating to make the Web more productive than ever, we’re introducing an all-new New Tab Page and brand new web-based extension model for Microsoft Edge.

Previously Microsoft had only hinted at this kind of developer initiative.  Now it's officially "welcoming developers" to Edge.
Windows 10 -- tab preview
Microsoft previewed Edge's new Tab style to developers at BUILD 2015.

Terry Myerson offers up a few more details indicating that developers will be able to integrate extension with the Cortana voice assistant (who's built into Edge).  He also hinted that developers may be able to add-onto or otherwise tap into Edge's built in content reader and note-taking APIs.  

Myerson's post also seemed to suggest that Microsoft may opt to deliver Edge extensions via the Windows Store, making the built-in app store even more important and multifunctional.  We'll have to wait in weeks to come to confirm that, though, and get more details on how Microsoft plans to extend its invitation to developers of Edge extensions.

Sources: Microsoft [1], [2], [YouTube]

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