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Peter Bright, Ars Technica:

With Microsoft’s decision to end development of its own Web rendering engine and switch to Chromium, control over the Web has functionally been ceded to Google. That’s a worrying turn of events, given the company’s past behavior.

Chrome itself has about 72 percent of the desktop-browser market share. Edge has about 4 percent. Opera, based on Chromium, has another 2 percent. The abandoned, no-longer-updated Internet Explorer has 5 percent, and Safari—only available on macOS—about 5 percent. When Microsoft’s transition is complete, we’re looking at a world where Chrome and Chrome-derivatives take about 80 percent of the market, with only Firefox, at 9 percent, actively maintained and available cross-platform.

This is a company that, time and again, has tried to push the Web into a Google-controlled proprietary direction to improve the performance of Google’s online services when used in conjunction with Google’s browser, consolidating Google’s market positioning and putting everyone else at a disadvantage. Each time, pushback has come from the wider community, and so far, at least, the result has been industry standards that wrest control from Google’s hands. This action might already provoke doubts about the wisdom of handing effective control of the Web’s direction to Google, but at least a case could be made that, in the end, the right thing was done.

But other situations have had less satisfactory resolutions. YouTube has been a particular source of problems. Google controls a large fraction of the Web’s streaming video, and the company has, on a number of occasions, made changes to YouTube that make it worse in Edge and/or Firefox. Sometimes these changes have improved the site experience in Chrome, but even that isn’t always the case.

A person claiming to be a former Edge developer has today described one such action. For no obvious reason, Google changed YouTube to add a hidden, empty HTML element that overlaid each video. This element disabled Edge’s fastest, most efficient hardware accelerated video decoding. It hurt Edge’s battery-life performance and took it below Chrome’s. The change didn’t improve Chrome’s performance and didn’t appear to serve any real purpose; it just hurt Edge, allowing Google to claim that Chrome’s battery life was actually superior to Edge’s. Microsoft asked Google if the company could remove the element, to no avail.

As another example, YouTube uses a feature called HTML imports to load scripts. HTML imports haven’t been widely adopted, either by developers or browsers alike, and ECMAScript modules are expected to serve the same role. But they’re available in Chrome and used by YouTube. For Firefox and Edge, YouTube sends a JavaScript implementation of HTML imports which carries significant performance overheads. The result? YouTube pages that load in a second in Chrome take many seconds to load in other browsers.

These actions may not be deliberate on the part of Google—it’s possible that the company simply doesn’t care about other browsers, rather than actively trying to hinder them. But even an attitude of “Google first, who cares about the rest?” is not the kind of thing that we should want from a company trusted with so much control over the Web.

Microsoft has been very explicit that its adoption of Chromium is to ensure maximal Chrome compatibility, and the company says that it is developing new engineering processes to ensure that it can rapidly integrate, test, and distribute any changes from upstream—it doesn’t ever want to be in the position of substantially lagging behind Google’s browser.

But this commitment ties Microsoft’s hands: it means that the company can’t ever meaningfully fork Chromium and diverge from its development path, because doing so will jeopardize that compatibility and increase the cost and complexity of incorporating Google’s changes. This means that, even if Google takes Chromium in a direction that Microsoft disagrees with or opposes, Microsoft will have little option but to follow along regardless.

Mozilla CEO Chris Beard fears that this consolidation could make things harder for Mozilla—an organization that exists to ensure that the Web remains a competitive landscape that offers meaningful options and isn’t subject to any one company’s control. Mozilla’s position is already tricky, dependent as it is on Google’s funding. But Mozilla is doing important, desirable work—Firefox has improved by leaps and bounds over the last year, and the development of the Rust language—which hopes to wed native code performance with safe memory handling—continues to show promise.

By relegating Firefox to being the sole secondary browser, Microsoft has just made it that much harder to justify making sites work in Firefox. The company has made designing for Chrome and ignoring everything else a bit more palatable, and Mozilla’s continued existence is now that bit more marginal. Microsoft’s move puts Google in charge of the direction of the Web’s development. Google’s track record shows it shouldn’t be trusted with such a position.

Yup (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15).

Paul Ciano

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