Microsoft defends sluggish ramp up of extensions for Edge browser

The company says it’s setting ‘a high bar for quality,’ but the limited number of add-ons for Edge may be hurting its popularity with Windows 10 users.

Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft last week reminded everyone of at least one reason why Windows 10 users have not gravitated to the company's Edge, pointing out that developers had published just 70 extensions for the browser over the past 12 months.

"It has been a little more than a year since Microsoft first shipped the number one requested feature for Microsoft Edge — extensions," wrote Colleen Williams, a senior program manager with the Edge team, in a post to a company blog. "We are excited to share a few updates on the progress we have made since then."

Williams touted the headway the company had made in convincing third-party developers to craft browser extensions, and more importantly, she said, in building the foundation that will allow more capable add-ons down the line.

"Before we could enable a wider ecosystem of extensions for our customers, we needed to improve the capabilities of our extensions platform to allow new categories of extensions and more features for existing extensions," Williams said. As evidence of those capabilities, she cited integration between Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps and extensions, improved (and more) APIs (application programming interfaces) opened to developers, and add-on access to the browser's bookmarks.

Although Microsoft began testing Edge extensions in March 2016, it wasn't until the August 2016 release of Windows 10 1607, a.k.a. the "Anniversary Update," and its refresh of Edge that add-ons reached the general population.

As of Oct. 3, there were 70 Edge extensions available in the Windows Store, the official market for Windows 10 apps and add-ons. Six of those, or 9% of the total, were made by Microsoft.

The sluggish progress in building an Edge add-ons e-mart was, argued Williams, the result of Microsoft's "purposefully metered approach as we onboard new extensions," as well as the company's "high bar for quality." Additionally, said Williams, Microsoft was taking its time approving add-ons because poorly crafted extensions could weaken the security of the browser, impede its performance and degrade its reliability.

Her explanations — depending on one's cynicism, they could be called excuses — were in sync with other statements Microsoft has made over the last two to three years. "Our experience over the past 20 years has taught us that poorly written or even malicious add-ons were a huge source of security, reliability and performance issues for browsers," wrote Drew DeBruyne, a general manager in the Edge group, in a March 2016 blog post where he introduced the first three add-ons.

Because of that stance, Microsoft dumped the extension technology pioneered by Internet Explorer — ActiveX, a proprietary format that no other browser used — and essentially started over. What Microsoft settled on was largely the same extension model that Chrome and others, including Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari, had long used and perfected.

That, and other unknown reasons, delayed the debut of Edge extensions to long past Windows 10's mid-2015 introduction. And although the company later pledged to add extension support to Edge by the end of 2015, it missed that mark as well.

Williams gave no hint that Microsoft would speed up extension approval, or that developers — whether in- or out-of-house — would soon boost the number of add-ons in the e-store. In fact, another Microsoft manager said that there was little call for more extensions. "Seventy [add-ons] might not sound like a lot, compared to other browsers, but actually it's almost the entirely of the requested extensions," asserted Patrick Kettner, an Edge program manager, during a session at Microsoft's Ignite conference last week in Orlando, Fla.

For her part, Williams implied it would be business as usual. "We continue to evaluate each extension submission to ensure that it will bring value to our users and support our goals for a healthy ecosystem," she said.

That can't be good for Edge.

It may be impossible to attribute the browser's poor reception to the add-on situation, but the omission in Edge's first year, then the small number of available extensions — rivals like Chrome and Firefox boast hundreds — certainly can't have done Edge any good.

As of the end of September, metrics vendor Net Applications estimated that just 17.7% of the world's Windows 10 PCs ran Edge during the month. That mark was Edge's lowest since its introduction, but the browser had been in decline from its debut, even though Microsoft went to great lengths to make sure it was difficult to swap another browser for Edge as the default.

Other data sources confirmed Edge's problems. The Digital Analytics Program (DAP) pegged Edge as used on 19.3% of all Windows PCs last month, a slight drop from the 19.4% of August. DAP tracks visits to more than 4,000 websites maintained by U.S. government agencies, so its data largely originates in the U.S.

As measured by DAP, Windows 10 accounted for 41% of the personal computers running Windows.

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