If you’re one of the billion-plus users of Google Chrome on Windows, then you should note the serious new warning issued this week. The surprise is that this warning—on Chrome’s behalf—comes from one of its harshest, most vocal critics.
Google Chrome dominates the worldwide browser market, with approaching 65% of the market to Apple Safari’s less than 20% in second place. Every other alternative, including Microsoft Edge, is just an also-ran.
Microsoft isn’t used to any kind of also-ran status, and in a world where its Windows operating system has an even more dominant desktop market share, a new report suggests it is doing something about this. If you use Chrome on a Windows device, the report warns that your user experience will be badly hit.
The research was sponsored by Mozilla, developer of the Firefox browser which lags a little behind Edge, with a 3.3% versus 5.3% market share. Mozilla commissioned “two independent experts… to investigate Microsoft’s design practices across its core OS (Windows 10 and 11), web browser (Edge), and search engine (Bing).”
“We find,” those experts say, “Microsoft repeatedly using harmful design to influence users into using Edge.” Claims include “harmful preselection, visual interference, trick wording, and disguised ads patterns to skew user choice of which browser to install… Obstruction to dissuade the switch [to a different default browser] and a refusal to switch the corresponding default app for various local web-related filetypes… [and ongoing] “harmful patterns to push the user back towards Edge.”
Mozilla is no fan of Chrome, to say the least. “Chrome is the only major browser that does not offer meaningful protection against cross-site tracking,” it has said of the long-delayed removal of tracking cookies from Chrome. And its website warns that Chrome’s “privacy record is questionable… Google actually collects a disturbingly large amount of data from its users—Google runs the world’s largest advertising network, thanks in large part to data they harvest from their users.”
But the report that Mozilla has just published is not really about Edge competing for users with Firefox. It is all about Chrome. Because, in reality, most Windows users by the numbers will install Chrome. And so it serves as a warning to those users.
With a fresh Windows desktop, users find Edge pre-installed and set as the default. It is also pinned to the taskbar and can’t be uninstalled. If the user decides to install Chrome, the report shows how Microsoft interrupts the install, claiming security and privacy benefits of Edge. The researchers warn that “users may be alarmed when they see the Edge promotional message appear within the Chrome download page, reasoning that since the banner is unusual it must be very important.”
Such interruptions occur whichever browser is being installed. But “if the user is looking to download Google Chrome,” the report says, “Microsoft takes an even more aggressive approach, intervening twice more in the user journey.”
There are other obstructive examples cited in the report, including a survey mid Chrome install, which points again to the benefits of Edge. “We deem this survey and its subsequent page an example of Obstruction,” the report says, “that makes it harder for users to complete Chrome installation.”
In parallel, as seen below, the import of Google data into Edge seems to be presented as a standard setup dialog. User preferences are not highlighted. It’s very easy for a user to click the Apply button with the default settings as shown.
This behavior, the researchers say, begins as soon as a user starts to search for browsers. The report includes multiple examples of ads injected into the search and install process, all of which seem to disrupt the user’s choice based on “inside” knowledge of what they intend to install.
The report isn’t limited to browsers, it also looks at search and cites examples where users are encouraged to shift from Google’s search to Microsoft Bing’s within an alternative browser, such as Chrome—assuming that install was not deterred.
The report acknowledges that “Edge is a relatively minor player. Since Windows is still the dominant OS, it is clear that millions of Windows users have overcome the practices we’ve questioned to successfully download and use Chrome. Microsoft may therefore argue these practices don’t unfairly skew the browser market or user choice.” Google Chrome versus Microsoft Edge doesn’t really represent a genuine David Vs Goliath in any shape or form. But the world has changed, and the other small browsers squaring up to the bigger players, including Firefox, does.
The researchers are based in the UK and tested their various user journeys on Windows 10 Home and Windows 11 Pro. There was no VPN in use, and so their location would have been readily available. As such, it’s not possible to determine from the report how widespread this is across other territories.
But such claims about Microsoft’s push to Edge are not limited to Mozilla’s report, and we have seen other recent complaints about Microsoft’s push to Edge.
Despite this new research, these types of claim are not new, and we have seen similar prompts before, with Microsoft pushing users towards its ecosystem and Google doing the same, warning Edge users to switch to Chrome.
The backdrop to this current story, though, is Europe’s DMA, and the regulations that look to disrupt so-called gatekeepers and gateway platforms from doing exactly this kind of thing. The idea is that default apps can be changed, small players can compete, and house apps can be uninstalled if required.
In its blogpost about the report, Mozilla says that “with the implementation of DMA in the European Union marking the start of a wave of global competition regulation, we hoped that the barriers to browser competition would be dismantled. However, even where there is movement in the right direction, improvements have been incomplete and are grudgingly offered only in markets where regulators have forced platform owners to make changes to respect browser choice.”
Mozilla goes on to complain that “Microsoft recently pledged to stop some of the actions it takes to force Edge on users who have selected other browsers… [but] they will only be deployed to users in the EEA.” Windows users everywhere… continue to have their choices inhibited, overridden and undermined by Microsoft’s use of harmful design. Regulatory action around the world is needed to restore browser choice and competition across all of the major platforms.”
I have reached out to Microsoft for a response to the Mozilla report.