Grow the Microsoft Edge browser, expand Windows 10 and keep building cool devices. That’s was Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore’s job before he stepped away from Microsoft in October of 2015, and that’s pretty much his job today, with a few crucial enhancements. The difference, though, is what Belfiore learned during his months-long sabbatical.
Belfiore being attached to the same goals makes sense since Windows, Edge and devices remain central to the Microsoft success story. Windows 10, now two years in market, has 400 million installs and is generally well-regarded. As of Tuesday, we were on our second major update (Windows Creators Update). Microsoft Edge gets a significant refresh in this version of Windows 10, but, according to NetMarketShare, it has just 5% of the desktop browser market, trailing behind the browser it ostensibly replaced, Internet Explorer 11, and Google Chrome, which has almost 40%.
Belfiore has his work cut out for him.
A 25-year Microsoft veteran, Belfiore, now Corporate VP in Microsoft’s Operating Systems Group has worked on numerous parts of Microsoft’s business, including Windows, Internet Explorer, Zune, Xbox Live, its failed Windows Phone attempt (there are still whispers that a Surface Phone is coming. We’ll see), and the replacement of Internet Explorer with the Edge Browser. He chose to step away, Belfiore said, to focus on his wife and children (a 12-year-old and twin, 8-year-old girls) and spend time with them before his kids were away at college, something he announced on his Facebook page.
‘It was a great experience…I came back with a new perspective on the broad audience Microsoft serves.’
That wasn’t corporatespeak from someone quietly slinking away into the darkness, never to be seen again. Belfiore and Microsoft always planned for his return, but first there was the sea. He enrolled his children in the Semester at Sea Program on the MV World Odyssey and was allowed, along with his wife, to join them on the long-term cruise.
“It was a great experience… I came back with a new perspective on the broad audience Microsoft serves,” Belfiore told me.
Stepping back also give him an opportunity to gauge how Microsoft has changed. Ever since Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2014, the company had appeared more focused and agile than ever before.
Belfiore said the company made huge progress in the nine months he was gone. “The improved collaboration and customer focus has been really refreshing,” he said.
As for the challenges facing Edge, Belfiore remains confident.
“It’s true, in the browser scheme of things, we have room to grow,” admitted Belfiore. That said, there are no regrets about introducing a new browser brand, “We’re not second-guessing that. It takes educating people, but I feel righteous about it,” he said.
Edge’s growth may be hampered a bit because, according to Belfiore, most Windows 10 users (Edge ships with it) are upgraders, meaning that they maintain their system apps, including Google Chrome, if they are using it. That means they will probably still use Chrome.
Belfiore listed all the areas where he believes Edge outperforms Chrome, including creativity, research, Ink, touch, battery consumption, and performance. The more Windows 10 consumers upgrade to new, modern devices, the more Microsoft sees “a lot more people tilting toward Edge.”
‘It’s true, in the browser scheme of things, we have room to grow.’
Belfiore was not making any promises about a sudden spike in Edge numbers, at least not in the short term. “We’re playing a long game here and are going to be focused on great user satisfaction in those scenarios,” he said.
Belfiore’s time away on the Semester at Sea ship and seeing the impact of technology on education while in the midst of a constant educational environment also had a significant impact on his role at Microsoft. He now serves as the education sponsor and advocate in the Windows team. There’s no title, but his job is to make sure that Microsoft is focusing on and responding to the education audience.
When I reminded him about the challenging environment Microsoft and Apple are facing in grade schools where Google Chromebooks and Google Docs now make up the majority of in-use platforms, Belfiore told me he gets the allure of Chromebooks for teachers and administrators. They’re inexpensive and easy to manage.
Would Microsoft consider a thin-client Windows to compete with Chrome? “If you mean an OS that doesn’t run rich Windows apps, then no,” said Belfiore.
However, he thinks Windows and the devices its runs on are up to the Chromebook challenge.
“We have made giant progress in Windows 10 on Creators Update,” he said. For example, the OS now boots more quickly and “it takes less memory and hard drive space, which lets the price of devices come down,” he said.
‘We have made giant progress in Windows 10 on Creators Update.’
Belfiore also pointed to sub-$200 PCs from its OEM partners (HP, Acer and Lenovo) and its new Microsoft InTune for Education cloud and device management system the company announced in January.
Belfiore added that, with these programs, Microsoft has done the work to erase the price and management advantage enjoyed by Chromebooks. At the same time, Belfiore believes very strongly that parents and teachers want their students working with systems and applications that they will be using as adults. As Belfiore sees it, that’s Windows and its full-blown Windows applications, not just thin, cloud-based clients and apps for mobile systems, like Apple iPads, that don’t feature a mouse and keyboard.
For now, Belfiore is focused on this week’s rollout of Windows 10 Creators Update, extending Edge’s reach and assisting on the creation of new and interesting Windows devices. He left Microsoft just as the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 were being released and told me that Surface Studio and Dial were already under development. Belfiore could offer no comment on the eagerly anticipated Surface Pro 5.
I also asked him about the possibility of developing a mobile version of the Edge browser, possibly for iOS.
“We want to put customers first and it’s not something we have plans for, no announcements,” said Belfiore, “but we do recognize that we’re going to think about what they want and need. We’ll put investment where there are high value experiences.”