Archive for customer experience

Microsoft Edge is Nearly Good Enough

Microsoft Edge, the successor to the now antediluvian Internet Explorer, first shipped 2 years ago as part of Windows 10. In its first iteration, Edge was bare boned compared to Google Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox. It lacked features that most customers had come to expect from a modern browser, not the least of which was extensions or plugins. Since then, Microsoft has continued to update Edge and advance the feature set. It is now almost good enough to be the browser of choice for the average user. But, as the old saying goes, almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Edge is fast. On my rather normal system it clearly outpaces both Firefox and Chrome in page loading and responsiveness. This is purely perceptual but that’s what matters. To the average consumer, benchmarks showing millisecond differences in page loads is utterly irrelevant. It’s how the browser seems to respond that makes the difference in user experience. Edge is lightening quick on most common browser type functions.

Another positive is memory usage compared to Chrome and the memory hog that Firefox has become. Perhaps it’s the lack of extensions (more later) or a design that is better able to leverage OS functions better, Edge sips memory where Chrome drinks freely and Firefox gulps.

By all rights, Edge should have become everyone’s everyday browser by now. Alas, it has been hampered by a lack of key, critical features to make that a reality. The latest update is clearly an attempt to address these shortcomings. Tab management, one of the big needs for power users, is now vastly improved. Tabs can be “set aside” or saved for later. Once collected, tabs an easily be recalled or removed from the saved tabs list. The Tab Preview feature helps to visually see all of the open tabs so that it is easier to find just the tab that is needed at the moment. Both features are important for power users who open a lot of tabs at once and need to keep track of them or move them temporarily out of site. Ironically, tab management such as this was pioneered by Mozilla for Firefox as Tab Groups, moved into the core product, and then extracted out later. Firefox now requires an extension to perform similar tab management.

Another catch-up feature is the reading view. The reader mimics similar features in Chrome and Firefox, as well as the Amazon Kindle, in which written content is displayed in a manner that more closely resembles how book and magazine pages look. Extraneous content is stripped away and the layout and font changed to make it easier to read. This is a great feature for consumers who get the majority of their reading material online. The shortcoming of the Microsoft Edge flavor is that there are very few websites that support reading view outside of Microsoft content such as books from the Windows Store and MSNBC.

Microsoft has also fixed the bookmark importer. Previously, when attempting to pull in bookmarks from Firefox, Edge would either generate errors or simply not do it. Now it works flawlessly. This is a big deal for someone considering switching. Having to go find all of those favorite bookmarks is a chore. The improved importer makes migration much easier. Customers can also now sync their bookmarks, passwords, and other settings between Edge browsers on other computers.

Given the progress, speed, and memory saving habits of Microsoft Edge, why is it still not ready to be the everyday browser? The short answer is that Edge still has some serious flaws. There are too few extensions, only 31 at the moment. Another way to look at this is that the Edge ecosystem is still a bit thin. Along the same lines, the lack of Linux, Macintosh, Android, and iOS versions of Edge is a major issue. Being able to sync browser settings is only half useful when they can’t sync to non-Windows devices. For the average consumer, this means having to have different browser experiences for different types of devices. Advantage Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. For power users especially, these are fatal flaws that keep them from adopting Edge as their default browser.

Microsoft Edge has come a long way. It’s increased compatibility with other sites, new features, and stability plus superior speed and memory management should propel it into a neck and neck race with Chrome and probably overtake Firefox in popularity. That may be the future but it can’t happen until the key issues of multi-device support and lack of a meaningful developer ecosystem are addressed. If that takes another year then Microsoft will have squandered an opportunity. Firefox is becoming slow and ponderous and Chrome seems in stasis, and alternatives such as Opera too odd or costly for most people to seriously consider their everyday browser. Microsoft has the ability to repeat it’s 1990s stomping of incumbent browser Netscape Navigator if it can just build up these last few bits.

Happy Anniversary Windows 10

I finally grew tired of waiting for Microsoft to update my Windows 10 computer to the new Anniversary edition. What can I say, I’m impatient. Thankfully, Microsoft has made it possible for customers to initiate the update on their own. Installing the official Windows 10 Anniversary upgrade is easy. Your computer downloads a ton of software while you wait and then, when there is enough new software downloaded, it begins to install (and you wait). Your computer will reboot three or four times (while you wait) and then it’s done. Altogether, it took about 45 minutes to download, install, reboot, repeat, rinse, repeat, and wait. I said it was easy – I didn’t say it was quick.

After all that reboot, downloading, and waiting, the Anniversary edition was a bit disappointing. There didn’t seem to be any performance gains – in fact, it seemed that some operations were slower. Perhaps there were security upgrades but it’s not like that something a customer really notices. Overall, it was kind of a letdown. Even so, there were a few interesting new additions that were noteworthy:

  • The embedded Linux bash shell. Microsoft has done the unthinkable and built a Linux subsystem into windows. This was done with obvious help of Ubuntu. I say obvious since it’s actually called the BASH on Ubuntu on Windows shell. It’s not an emulator. Instead, it’s a fully functioning Linux kernel with a command line interface. I highly suspect that it is possible to install XWindows and the Unity GUI if one wanted to go through the effort. The Windows bash shell does have access to many important Windows resources such as the filesystem and is clearly not running in a sandbox. This makes it both intriguing and dangerous. It’s not like this is for novices anyway. First off, it’s Linux not OSX. Second, it doesn’t even come installed. You have to enable developer options, turn the feature on, download the Linux bash shell, and then run it to configure it with a couple more reboots thrown in before it can happen. I followed How-To Geeks instructions and they worked perfectly. Still, I can’t imagine the non-geeky even trying this, let alone finding it the least bit useful.
  • Cortana Upgrades. Cortana still can only speak in that cheeky female voice. Obviously, Microsoft didn’t get to all the upgrades for Cortana that was on the wish list. They did add a bunch of new integrations that makes Cortana respond in more useful ways and control more of the computer it lives on (or in? – It’s weird). The biggest change, bar none, is the ability to channel notifications from your smartphone Cortana to your desktop Cortana. The upshot is that you can get notices of calls and texts messages on your PC and vice versa. There are IFTTT scripts that allow the same thing but the Cortana implementation is much slicker, seamless, and two-way. You can also write contextual phrase such as the word tomorrow in some apps, which Cortana will underline and, if you click on it, will cause some actions. For example, I can write “Remind me to buy milk tomorrow” on a sticky note and Cortana will underline “tomorrow”. If I then click on the word “tomorrow” it will launch Cortana with a preconfigured reminder based on the note.
  • The Windows Ink Workspace. It’s a whole set of features that work with touchscreens. Whoopee! No, not whoopee. My desktop and laptop computers don’t have touchscreens and many features are only useful if you have type of pen device. This is clearly a tablet-oriented features and should be a separate download. Even Microsoft must think so since the Microsoft Ink Workspace was hidden by default. You have to left click on the taskbar to show it. Seems like a waste of disk space for a great many computers.
  • Dark Themes. This is only for the emo kids which I don’t even think is a thing anymore.
  • Improvements to Microsoft Edge browser. Edge now has plugins and the ability to sync bookmarks. The latest upgrade thus makes Edge almost as useful as Firefox and Chrome. Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Edge is a vast improvement on Internet Explorer but is still playing catch up to the other big browsers.
  • Changes to the Start Menu. Will Microsoft ever stop tinkering with the Start Menu? It was pretty much the same for nearly 20 years but since Windows 8, Microsoft can’t seem to stop messing with it. The version that came as part of the original Windows 10 was pretty good. The new version has some small changes that lend little value. For example, instead of clicking on Apps to see a list of installed applications, the list is just always there. Someone clearly thought this was handy but, sadly, they were wrong. It makes the interface look and feel crowded. In order to show you apps you will never scroll through (that’s what the tiles and desktop are for – launching apps you use a lot), Microsoft has shrunk to tiny icon size, all the other functions on the Start Menu such as file explorer, settings, and shut down. Please Microsoft, leave the start menu alone!

There’s more new stuff that is nice including some updates to the Action Center, the restoration of the Skype universal app, and changes to the little calendar in the task bar (because we all need five different places to look at our calendar details). Most of these are incremental improvements at best. Many of these tweaks only make sense if you are working on a Windows tablet such as the Connect App. Otherwise, unless you are a computer geek jonesing for more Linux everywhere or one of the tiny percentage of people who opted for a Microsoft tablet instead of an iPad or Android tablet, much of the Anniversary update will be of little or no use. Frankly, I was hoping for more.