January 15th, 2020 was the day Microsoft Edge went Chromium. A drop in browser engine diversity. There is a strong argument to be made that’s not good for an ecosystem. Looked at another way, perhaps not so bad:
Perhaps diversity has just moved scope. Rather than the browser engines themselves representing diversity, maybe forks of the engnies we have left can compete against each other. Maybe starting from a strong foundation is a good place to start innovating.
It’s awesome when browsers compete on features that are great for users but don’t affect web standards. Great password managers, user protection features, clever bookmarking ideas, reader modes, clean integrations with payment APIs, free VPNs, etc.
That’s sort of the road that Opera went down when they went Chromium, then they turned into a payday loan company. (WTF, right?!) The layoffs at Mozilla don’t seem dire, but don’t signal anything particularly good either.
I’d say it’s also significant that Microsoft’s deprecated engines were not open source while Chromium is. While it may be in Google’s hands, open source is still a good thing and opens the door to outside involvement, which had done great things, like bringing us CSS grid.
Jeremy Keith, paraphrasing Amber Wilson:
The bar of unity is being raised. Now, a number of separate browser makers—Google, Samsung, Microsoft—not only collaborate on standards but also on implementation, sharing a codebase.
So these browsers are still competing, but the competition is no longer happening at the level of the rendering engine.
Jeremy isn’t convinced though. We’re down to essentially a two-party political system, but with one side having a crushing majority.
Checks and balances exist, but they’re in peril.
Just as the world is pouring one out for dying browsers, a new totally-from-scratch browser comes out of nowhere: Flow. PPK has an interview with the creator, Piers Wombwell. It’s not open source. You can’t even download it. But it exists! If I was a betting man I would have lost a lot of money on a bet that nobody would ever seriously try to take on building another browser from scratch.
I’m not even sure what I think about all this. Part of me thinks about Walmart. I feel like I’ve spent the last 25 years listening to everyone around me be so mad about Walmart. They open up on the outskirts of an old town and sell their cheap shoes and cheap bikes and the nice little shoestore and long-standing bike store downtown go out of business. The face of business just kind of changed. The face of browsers has changed too, and I don’t have the energy to be mad about it for another 25 years. That’s not to excuse companies that have done and do foul crap, it’s more to say all this is complicated and tiring.
In my opinion this was a necessary, as well as good change.
The original Edge was doomed from the start because of the lack of feature parity with Chrome or Firefox and made the prolonged survival of Internet Explorer possible in the first place by being locked to Windows 10.
Chrome-Edge has the possibility of finally killing Internet Explorer for good, allowing people like me, currently being forced to support IE11 for companies, townhalls and such, to finally use features like css grid in production.
Also I don’t see a IE6 like Problem with the Chromium dominance, because Chromium does at least move forward. It might as well be moving faster, since Google decides the standards one way or another. Just look at http/3 or WebP.
The browser has become the most used application of all. Even mobile apps now are transitioning to PWAs because people prefer using the browser as their interface with the online and even their own computer. Having one codebase to rule them all cannot possibly be good.
I would argue that concentrating so much influence in a single application makes it very special. We need to go further with defining what a browser should do, way beyond HTML and CSS specifications. For example, browsers should always allow plugins, to support diversity and allow for functionality like ad blocking, or be easy to embed in applications based on a public UI.
I am already annoyed with Chrome adding so many restrictions because they just have the market share to impose it: kill Flash, not allow people to go to https sites if their certificate is invalid – even if it’s your own damn site and you want to whitelist it, remove the backspace functionality to go back to the previous page, limit number of redirects with no possibility of reconfiguring it, the way cookies work, a million flags that maybe you can modify, but Google can also remove at any time, like mute a tab.
It’s not that some of these ideas are not good, it’s that having one codebase makes it easy to bully people into whatever future a few companies decide we should have. That’s why I had to install Brave on Android because Chrome refuses to support ad blockers and plugins on mobile. Brave is also based on Chromium, BTW.
Bottom line: no, I’ve seen how Google does no evil when it has a crushing majority in market shares. We do not want that in the tool we use most.
While it’s good to be wary of the effects of Chromiums increased market share, I believe that the danger is not the shared codebase, but what license it is built upon. Fortunately Chromiums licenses are very permissive. So while there indeed is a risk of Google turning up the evil dial, if they take it too far someone could just fork it. In the meantime, it should have some obvious benefits, some of which are mentioned in this article.
However, I haven’t read the source code, but IIRC there are some blobs in it, which would make the source not free (free as in freedom, not as in free beer). And if that is true, then that could still be an issue even if one would fork it.
I’m somewhat optimistic that this is a step in the right direction for both developers and end users.
For developers it is becoming easier to develop for one browser and just have things work across the board. Feature detection now allows for more experimentation with new features in each browser and it generally feels like a much more complete ecosystem than the segmented world it was before HTML5. I can’t actually remember the last time something I developed in Chrome was broken in another browser and I had to manually fix it. Sure we still have to polyfill or gracefully degrade but the core functionality is generally spot on now.
For the end user, browser developers can now focus much more time on the actual features that the browser provides and improve the UX. I feel like users are going to be less locked in to using a particular browser just because it is the only one sites are developed for and other browsers provide a degraded experience. If the foundation is the same for all browsers then the user is free to choose based on the features they actually care about rather the way websites are rendered.
We have a single (mostly) web standard so why not have a single rendering engine which implements it and then build upon it from there? It’s clear the Edge team were struggling to implement all of the new features of the modern web as so many things were missing and this takes development time away from improving UX and experimenting with new technologies. I’m hoping that now more browsers are on a level playing field to start with, more innovation will be made as more resources can be diverted to new features rather than implementing the existing ones.
I really like the Superstore analogy here. Feels very akin to what’s happening.