I have always wondered why web browsers always ask if they should be the default browser.

Or, well, maybe not this behaviour as such, but why are web browsers the only applications that ask this? I mean, text editors don't ask if they should be the default text editor. Graphics programs don't ask if they should be the default image editor. Etc.
So, why do web browsers?

It's not like this behaviour is necessary. All operating systems have ways to let the user choose default programs for tasks.

Then what is different about web browsers that they behave like this?

  • Why do you think only Web Browsers do this? It's pretty standard behaviour for an operating system to ask which program to use as the default.
    – JonW
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 13:04
  • @JonW That's what I said in my question: yes, the OS has that abolity. Then why do the browsers need that ability too? I mean, when you start up a browser, it's not the operating system that asks.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 13:12
  • Actually - there's a fair few programs that I've installed (like IrfanView, for example) that ask what file types you want to associated with it as part of the install. Granted, it doesn't repeatedly ask every time you start it like browsers do.
    – HorusKol
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 1:33
  • Because browsers want to be the default - there is revenue associated with more use.. Most programs don't really care if they are the default. It is not limited to browser - for video I have been asked by the application if I want to make it the default - you can buy music on their app and they want you using their app.
    – paparazzo
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 11:20

4 Answers 4


Average Joe

Average Joe doesn't know how to set the default browser from the OS, so browsers provide this option so they can be sure that they've done what's necessary for the user to choose them as the default.
This way they get a way bigger chance of getting users and the more users (AKA clients) they get the more money they make.

Application type and differentiation

tl;dr: "Inertia" effect doesn't applies to every type of application.

Comparing browsers with other types of applications, all known browsers offer more or less the same service so users can jump from one to another with almost null adaptation so being the default one is a key point.

Taking your example: the people who frequently use a Image/Video Editor choose it for specific reasons which make them prefer one over the other, e.g. they have different capabilities, usability, integration with other apps, price, etc.
They will not start using one particular application just because they've been received the option of setting that program as default.

Other type of application that could relay on the "inertia" effect are (or used to be at least) the music players. The most people just want to use play-pause and hear the music, something that you can do it with every music player.

What would you do?

If you'd want to promote your own browser and get as much users as you can, would you let the task of asking about the default to the OS?
Would you try every OS to see if them work as you expect?

Even if it works in almost all the cases, would you "leave an open window" knowing that your competitors are including this option and you're probably not?

  • 1
    Accepting this one, although it's more conjecture than an official answer, but I'm starting to believe there is no official answer anyway.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 20:42

That's a good question and easy to answer. As a UX Designer you shall think of both user's needs and business goals.

Let's see what Google could win from making its great Chrome the default bowser?

  1. As simple as it may seems, it's important: Reputation.
  2. Collecting data: that's the critical reason for what can be called "browser-war". Every page you access is saved by Google for later use. Could be for advertisement, selling data to third party, enhancing experience for you and others...more.
  3. Default search engine: the default engine on Chrome is - drum rolls please - Google! and default one on IE is - again drum rolls please - Bing! Searching experience is precious. This data is used by search engine designers for designing ads. Have you ever wondered why you find specific ads for a certain products once you started searching for them on Amazon?
  • 1) But Google Chrome wasn't even around when the Browser Wars started! and 2) Why doesn't gedit ask if it can be made the default text editor? Why doesn't MS Outlook ask if it should be the default Exchange client? It doesn't make sense!
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 13:10
  • 1
    @Mr Lister - his point #2 answers your question. Outlook & text editors & most other programs don't care what you do with them - you've already paid. They might send crash reports, but they don't otherwise collect analytics about your behavior & they cannot monetize your usage habits. Web browsers can and do, by helping advertisers and providing the platform for tracking cookies, etc that are huge business. As for why it started? Probably because way back in 1996 nobody had a clue how to change their default browser from IE to Netscape, and this was an easy solution.
    – mc01
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 15:25
  • @mc01 answered your question. Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 21:28

Other applications do it as well. They ask you to associate certain file types with it. When double clicking a file it starts the default application. There is no OS-setting for text or image editors, but there is one for each file type (txt, doc, jpg etc.). For browsers there is "make default" setting probably because web browsing is not associated with file types but with the http protocol. To make it a bit more complicated; You can set a different browser than the default to be associated with the HTML file type, thus to open it when double clicking (local) html files.


Browser developers want you to use their browser.

  • 3
    This looks more like a comment than an answer.
    – Mayo
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 13:47
  • It's a comment and an answer. I don't believe there's a good UX reason for this, others seem to be trying to bend default applications into a UX scenario, which is fine. Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 14:42
  • I agree with that for the most part. I don't think this is primarily a UX issue. It's a business preference that customer use their product. The business/UX problem becomes how best to get people to use their product and not their competitors
    – Mayo
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 14:50
  • That's true, do you think I should expand it? I thought it said everything it needed to say... without going into the intricacies of one browser over another. Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 14:52
  • I think someone downvoted you because it's such a short answer and doesn't add much to how one thinks about the question. (Hence my comment above.)
    – Mayo
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 14:54

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