One of the interesting facets in the “evolution” of Windows over the decade or so is the way Microsoft suddenly pretends not to be aware of common institutional knowledge. Microsoft, for example, had to learn that designing apps that act like malware is wrong. It had to learn that people value patch notes. It had to learn that people want more control over when and how their PC updates.
The latest concept Microsoft has “forgotten” people care about is browser choice. When you start a new browser for the first time in Windows 11, Microsoft asks which application you’d like to use to open web content, as detailed by The Verge. Fair enough. But, according to that publication, this currently normal behavior only occurs the very first time you use the browser. If you don’t select “Always use this app,” you won’t see the message again. Ars reports that this message is no longer shown at all, so there seems to be some confusion over exactly how this is treated, but either the message isn’t shown or it’s only shown once.
In Windows 10, if you stop seeing this message, you can adjust your default browser by typing “default browser,” which will bring up the option to choose a default web browser as well as other apps. In Windows 11, this option to change the entire default browser in one click is gone. Instead, you’ll need to change the defaults for FTP, HTM, HTML, HTTP, HTTPS, PDF, SHTML, SVG, WEBP, XHT, and XHTML manually, one at a time.
Adding more granularity for advanced users is fine, but removing the option to set a default browser in a single click is not. Microsoft annoying you to use Edge while you’re actively attempting to assign tasks to Chrome is also not okay. Ars reports that Chrome kicks you over to the Default apps page to set your standards up one by one, but that Firefox was able to set itself as default, so there also seems to be variation in terms of what third-party browsers do when confronted with this behavior.
If Microsoft is iterating on a design and intends to implement the default browser one-click option and/or to change how it displays browser options after a new one is installed, no problem. Windows 11 is still in beta and adjustments are to be expected. Microsoft has not yet stated this is the end goal, however.
“With Windows 11, we are implementing customer feedback to customize and control defaults at a more granular level, eliminating app categories and elevating all apps to the forefront of the defaults experience,” says a Microsoft spokesperson in a statement to The Verge. “As evidenced by this change, we’re constantly listening and learning, and welcome customer feedback that helps shape Windows. Windows 11 will continue to evolve over time; if we learn from user experience that there are ways to make improvements, we will do so.”
If the company leaves the OS in this configuration, it’ll be a further escalation of hostilities between Microsoft and its own customers. The situation potentially recalls the 1990s when Microsoft was legendary for “embrace, extend, and extinguish.” It can’t be claimed Microsoft is refusing to allow customers to change their default browser. It’s just made that as difficult and onerous as it can be while technically still providing the option. In the past, this was a one-click option. Now, you have to change 11 different document defaults.
The problem with assuming Microsoft is acting in good faith is that we’ve heard this excuse before, repeatedly. Microsoft “learned a lot, obviously” after it rolled out the final, malware-equivalent version of Get Windows 10. It had to receive “feedback” from enterprise customers before it learned that abolishing non-security patch notes was bad. In 2015, after initial backlashes regarding Windows 10 privacy, what was Microsoft doing? “Listening and learning.” The problem is not that the company is learning, but that it keeps forgetting what it has previously “learned” about customer preferences.
Deconstructing browser choice into multiple individual settings reads more like an attempt to snow users, not help them. It looks like a miniature version of the tactic Star Citizen now employs with respect to its roadmap. After repeatedly being criticized for being years late delivering the titular game, Cloud Imperium Games released a roadmap that is so atomized, there’s no possible way to draw any conclusions from it. Open every top-level menu and attempt to screenshot the result (we did), and the final image is thousands of pixels long, before opening any secondary headers. On my own PC, it came to 12,338 pixels, but your mileage will vary depending on screen resolution and magnification settings. The Star Citizen roadmap is phenomenally detailed, but the sheer amount of information makes it impossible to quickly ascertain how game development is progressing over time.
Microsoft’s list of settings that need to be changed is much shorter, but the principle is the same. A list of 11 options that need changing is confusing, especially to less technical users, in a way that a single option is not. This does not appear to be an attempt to prioritize user choice. If it was, Microsoft would offer a global option to set your browser and then give end-users the option to tweak which browser opened which kind of document via a secondary set of menus. It would give users the up-front option to create local accounts rather than obfuscating it. It would offer end-users the option to opt-out of all telemetry collection. It would allow users to reorganize the Start Menu in a meaningful way, or sort it in a manner other than alphabetically. If Microsoft cared about customer choice, the choice to display ads in Windows would be opt-in, not opt-out, Edge would not automatically import data from other browsers at start-up with no option to stop it, and Microsoft wouldn’t force customers to install third-party utilities to block their automatic updates.
As a side note on that last point: If you work on any hobby or job that requires long processing times, there may literally be no good time for Windows to reboot your PC. Some projects, like video rendering, cannot be restarted in the middle if interrupted halfway through. Workloads must be started from scratch. Some workloads can take 40-80 hours to render — the VSGAN I’ve been experimenting with runs at 0.33 frames per second and requires 55 hours to process 45 minutes of footage.
Microsoft absolutely cares about consumer choice, but it seems to believe everyone is making the wrong choices. People use Google instead of Bing. They use Chrome instead of Edge. They prefer the option to create local accounts and not to lose 48-hour rendering projects in the middle because Windows rebooted to update (ask me how I know!). It’s good to offer users the option to drill down into detail settings and control individual options, but it’s not a substitute for an easy way to change one’s browser permissions.
Hopefully, this will all be solved by the time the OS launches, and people will have an easy path to change their browser defaults. If they don’t, it’s going to look an awful lot like Microsoft attempted to seize by literal default what it couldn’t achieve in honest competition.
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