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March 17, 2024

Alert: Google Chrome Issues Warning to All Windows Users

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If you’re one of the billion-plus users of Google Chrome on Windows, then you have just been warned that what might look like malware hijacking your browser is not what it seems…

A serious new warning has been issued for the billion-plus Chrome users on Windows

3/17 update below; article originally published 3/15.

Google Chrome dominates the desktop browser market, which means it’s the default for a billion-plus Windows users—almost all of whom also default to Google for their search.

This situation appears to irk Microsoft, and the company seemingly can’t understand why all those (Microsoft) Windows users don’t also use (Microsoft) Edge as their browser and (Microsoft’s) Bing as their search engine. They’d like to remedy this. And the thing about captive audiences…

Last month, I reported that Mozilla (another also ran behind Chrome in the browser market) had commissioned independent research that warned Window’s Chrome users that they would be inundated with “switch to Edge” banners and pop-ups when they installed Chrome. That same report also warned that Bing messages were being targeted at those same users.

A month later and here we are again. As first reported by Windows Latest, “Microsoft is rolling out a new server-side update that could trick some people into using Bing as a default search engine in Google Chrome.” Users on Reddit and elsewhere are also warning that a new Bing popup is such an irritant that it looks like malware. It’s safe—that’s not the issue. It’s a persistent ad pushing Chrome users away from Google towards Bing, which is a different kind of problem.

According to The Verge, “Microsoft has confirmed that the pop-ups are genuine and should only appear once.” The company’s spokesperson even suggested that Chrome users were being offered some kind of Microsoft freebie here, in the form of Co-Pilot (aka ChatGPT) prompts. “We value providing our customers with choice, so there is an option to dismiss the notification.”

Despite that assurance, online comments suggest this Bing promotion echoes the persistence of the Edge push that hit the headlines last month, and which included an “error” on Microsoft’s part—since fixed, where Edge was copying across Chrome settings without user permission.

Bing popup targeting Chrome users

The issue of course is that Microsoft banners and popups for those running Windows come across as OS notifications, not just marketing. As the researchers behind Mozilla’s report last month warned, “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.”

That same theme fuels comments online. One Reddit user complained that “a computer OS should not be a sales platform, and should not be an advertising platform for the company’s other products. This kind of thing is disgusting and shouldn’t be allowed.” While another posted: “Microsoft, seriously. Find those ‘Microsoft Support’ people hidden in your campus and get them out. You are seriously blurring the line between being a credible software vendor and malware as you go along.”

Tom Warren contributing to The Verge echoes a corresponding standpoint. “I’ve been escalatingly irritated with Microsoft’s endeavors to forcibly send pop-up ads to Chrome users in recent times… Microsoft has previously compelled individuals into Edge after a Windows Update, and perpetually exhibits a full-screen notification to persuade Windows users to transition to Bing and Edge whenever updates get implemented.”

I have reached out to Microsoft for any inputs on these user grievances.

Of course, there’s an interesting contradiction here. This situation is unfolding while Europe’s DMA and regulatory bodies elsewhere are intensifying their scrutiny on so-called gatekeeper tech providers—including Microsoft and Google. Yet, in spite of Microsoft’s preeminence in its Windows desktop OS or in facets of AI, it’s a different scenario with Edge and Bing, where they are relatively minor entities. Where these Microsoft platforms are attempting to compete with Chrome and Google Search, it’s fair to depict Microsoft as David while Google plays Goliath.

Therefore, providing you are using Chrome and Google Search, for now, you will just have to endure the banners and popups. That is unless of course, you’re swayed by the promotion and wish to transition. In such cases, all you have to do is a single click. Microsoft has made it that straightforward, which, indirectly, is the crux of the matter.

3/17 update: It seems that these popups are not the only persistent push that Chrome users will see towards Bing. Microsoft’s Dev Channel has just published release notes that include this added feature:

“Implemented a Bing search box on the error message page.”

This is timely given the online response to those Bing popups. That said, it’s a smart move—a simple click to search for information on an error code, using Bing, of course. In fairness, this is unlike a promoted settings change—which is persistent, but even so it will further fuel the concerns users are now expressing.

As we saw with the Edge promotion last month, it does seem that Microsoft has Chrome more in its sights than other browsers. One Reddit user responded to the ongoing furore by pointing out “I’m using the Brave browser (Chromium) with DuckDuckGo as my search engine. I haven’t seen any pop-ups for Bing.”

Despite the furore, this spat between Microsoft and Google will continue—this is just the latest episode in a much more complex story. Remember the recently unsealed legal documents in which Google claimed Bing search weaknesses?

And as entertaining as the battle over browsers and current search technologies might be, the real fun and games will be saved for AI, with Google and Microsoft right at the forefront of the new battleground for users.

Microsoft claims it needs to wrap up deals across the generative AI landscape to compete with Google, which has far greater capacity to run an integrated AI stack.

Microsoft has just said as much to European regulators: “Today, only one company—Google—is vertically integrated in a manner that provides it with strength and independence at every AI layer from chips to a thriving mobile app store. Everyone else must rely on partnerships to innovate and compete.”

As reported by Verdict , “a Google spokesperson said the company hoped the [European] Commission’s study would ‘shine a light on companies that don’t offer the openness of Google Cloud or have a long history of locking in customers—and who are bringing that same approach to AI services’.”

As Google pushes Gemini and Microsoft pushes Co-pilot across their landscapes, and with AI expected to change the traditional search landscape—notwithstanding these latest Bing promotions—all of these various threads are set to blur.

Watch this space…

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