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Windows 11’s Default Browser Situation Is So Messed Up, Firefox Hacked It

A Firefox browser requesting to be the default browser

Windows 11 feels a lot like Windows 10 with a nice sheen of polish. But a few things are worse, like how it now takes a dozen steps to set a new default browser. It’s so bad that Mozilla hacked the system to let Firefox set itself as the default browser again. And so begins the default browser wars.

Update, 11/12/21: Microsoft broke all workarounds for its custom URI scheme, including the Firefox workaround.

If you missed it, Microsoft made a big change when it concerns default programs in Windows 11. Windows 10 made changing your default program marginally more difficult. In Windows 8.1 and earlier, a browser could prompt you to make it the default, and if you clicked yes, you were done.

Starting in Windows 10, programs couldn’t make themselves default automatically anymore, including browsers. Instead, they could only launch the default apps settings panel, and you needed to make the change. But, to help with that, Microsoft created a handy quick setting area at the top for your browser, mail app, and other common programs. You’d click on that, then click the program you wanted to be the default. It was a few more steps, but not bad.

Windows 11 killed the quick default app page. Now, if you want to set a new default browser, you need to go to the default app page, and one by one, set a new browser for the HTM, HTML, PDF, SHTML, SVG, WEBP, SHT, FTP, HTTP, and HTTPS extensions. It is, in a word, ridiculous. And browser companies aren’t happy about it.

Firefox seems to be taking matters into its own hands with a new update. Starting today, you’ll actually see behavior that resembles Windows 8 and earlier. When you launch Firefox, it will ask if you want it to be the default browser and if you agree, it will just work. No settings panel, no extensions; Firefox is now your default browser. We tested it in the latest release, and it worked.

Which is, frankly, surprising because it’s not supposed to work. Windows 10 and 11 forbids programs from setting themselves as a default, yet Mozilla managed to do that. Since Firefox is open-source, you can dig into how Mozilla managed it, and the code is wonderfully commented. It looks like Mozilla is doing a bit of reverse engineering to guess the correct parameters it needs to input, and to stop Defender from throwing a fit, Mozilla moved the process to an outside operation. Basically, Mozilla is tricking Windows into thinking a human made choices.

But don’t expect this to last. Sooner or later, Microsoft will learn of Mozilla’s efforts, and you can expect an update to break that process. Then Mozilla will likely find a new method to bypass Microsoft’s security, which will lead to another Windows update. It’s a default browser war.

The only end that seems likely is Microsoft giving Windows 11 the same default browser selection page Windows 10 has. Browser manufacturers still didn’t like that either, but it seemed to be a middle ground Mozilla, Google, and others were willing to put up with.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson is the Editor in Chief of Review Geek and is responsible for the site's content direction. He has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smart home enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code. Read Full Bio »