Google gains power over web as Microsoft rebuilds its Edge …


Edge is getting a brain transplant with Chrome's software foundation

Edge is getting a brain transplant with Chrome’s software foundation


Microsoft

Microsoft will rebuild its Edge browser on Google’s Chromium software, the company said Thursday, a move that expands the search giant’s dominance over the web.

Microsoft confirmed it will start using the Google’s open-source project, which sits at the heart of the Chrome browser, in a blog post, saying the shift will take place over the next year. The company billed the change, which had been reported earlier this week, as an improvement for web developers and Windows users alike. Developers will deal with less complexity, Microsoft said, while Windows users will run into fewer websites that don’t work correctly.

Chromium, the foundation of Chrome, is an open-source project which anybody is free to copy, use and contribute to — though there’s no guarantee Google will incorporate those changes into its own browser. At the heart of Chromium is an engine called Blink that handles the browser’s core work of digesting website programming instructions and presenting the pages to us.

Microsoft’s move also means there’s one less independent player setting web standards and improving core browser technology. Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari, which once shared the same core software as Chrome, remain independent. Microsoft, though, joins Opera in its decision to cede control over the software.

“People using Microsoft Edge (and potentially other browsers) will experience improved compatibility with all web sites, while getting the best-possible battery life and hardware integration on all kinds of Windows devices.” Joe Belfiore, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Windows, said in the blog post. “Web developers will have a less-fragmented web platform to test their sites against, ensuring that there are fewer problems and increased satisfaction for users of their sites.”

Microsoft launched Edge three years ago, trying for a fresh start after years of watching its once-dominant Internet Explorer lose its luster. Now, 10 years after its public launch, Chrome now dominates the web, in part because it’s the default browser on hundreds of millions of Android phones. Google Chrome accounts for 62 percent of web usage, according to analytics firm StatCounter.

The Chromium move also will mean Microsoft will speed up its browser release cycle, unshackling Edge updates from Windows releases and matching the swift cadence of improvements and fixes championed by Chrome and Firefox. And it’ll let Microsoft bring Edge to MacOS, something that isn’t likely to attract a large fraction of users but that could reassure corporate IT managers. And it’ll mean people sticking with Windows 7 and Windows 8 will get a modern browser, too, since today’s Edge doesn’t work there.

But it could hurt the web, warned Mozilla Chief Executive Chris Beard in a grim blog post exhorting people to try his rival browser, Firefox.

“Google is so close to almost complete control of the infrastructure of our online lives that it may not be profitable to continue to fight this. The interests of Microsoft’s shareholders may well be served by giving up on the freedom and choice that the internet once offered us,” Beard said. “Google’s dominance across search, advertising, smartphones and data capture creates a vastly tilted playing field that works against the rest of us.”

Jumping on the Chromium bandwagon

Microsoft joins Opera, Samsung, Brave, Yandex, Baidu and Vivaldi in building their browsers on Chrome technology. Most of those started on the Chromium foundation. Opera largely abandoned its own Presto browser engine in its 2013 switch to the Chrome technology.

Given Edge’s low usage — not even high enough to surpass the Internet Explorer browser it was intended to replace — observers were unsurprised by Microsoft’s move but not optimistic about its prospects.

“Edge is doomed,” said web developer Ferdy Christant in a blog post. “Switching to Chromium makes no difference in market share, as the only way to compete now is through the browser’s UI [user interface], not via the engine. Which isn’t a competition at all, since browser UI is a commodity.”

For its part, Google said the Microsoft move will help, not hurt, the open web philosophy that pushes for a technology foundation that’s independent, not controlled by a corporate entity the way Apple controls iOS or Microsoft controls Windows.

Google: we still value the open web

“Chrome has been a champion of the open web since inception and we welcome Microsoft to the community of Chromium contributors,” Google said in a statement. “We look forward to working with Microsoft and the web standards community to advance the open web, support user choice and deliver great browsing experiences.”

Microsoft’s browser gained dominance in the first browser battles with ruthless competition against Netscape Communications’ browser, Netscape Navigator. But when it largely won that war with Internet Explorer, it effectively stopped developing IE. It took years for Firefox and then other rivals like Safari to challenge IE, but Microsoft never regained its former clout despite being able to ship a default browser on every Windows-powered laptop.

Now, Chrome is dominant, but unlike IE in the early 2000s, Google has been aggressively developing and pushing for new standards to improve the web overall. One major thrust right now is toward “progressive web apps” (PWAs) that better match native apps, initially on phones but increasingly on MacOS and Windows computers, too.

And Google insists its browser philosophy won’t result in the stagnant web that Internet Explorer 6 was part of for years.

“We will not be shy about making breaking changes that make the web better / less quirky. We haven’t been to date,” tweeted Darin Fisher, the Chrome engineering leader who helped write the first secret prototype of the Google browser in 2006.

Microsoft: we’ll remain active in browser development

Microsoft won’t just passively take whatever Google releases in the Chromium project, Belfiore said, but will contribute directly to Chromium through its open-source process. “We recognize that making the web better on Windows is good for our customers, partners and our business — and we intend to actively contribute to that end,” he said.

When Opera switched to Chromium, “It did not stop Opera making web browsers,” tweeted former Opera developer Rich Tibbett about Microsoft’s change on Wednesday.

But there’s plenty of teeth-gnashing about the future of the web. Chrome bugs just become a part of the web, tweeted former Mozilla programmer Robert O’Callahan, and big changes, such as Firefox’s Stylo project, become very difficult.

To accommodate all the new Chromium participants, Tibbett proposed a Chromium Foundation with an “open governance model like the Linux Foundation.” With that approach, “we could all converge (and compete) around one unified engine,” he said.

Microsoft’s long-term commitment to Chromium

Moving to Google’s browser could be seen as a cost-cutting move, but Microsoft’s Edge team is actually hiring, team member Sean Lyndersay tweeted.

In a developer-focused post, Microsoft said the Chromium shift is a long-term commitment.

“We expect our engineers to learn and over time become experts in the Chromium project and grow into active and responsible members of the community. We are eager to increase our contributions to the Chromium project and will continue to maintain any contributions we make,” Edge team members said in a the blog post.

That includes work on supporting touch interfaces, bringing Chromium to the 64-bit ARM processor family that’s core to Microsoft’s attempt to push Windows beyond Intel chips, support for Microsoft accessibility technologies such as Narrator and improving browser security.

Even if Chrome and Chromium remain vital and Microsoft actively helps, there’s no question the web is moving closer to a Chrome-only monoculture.

“I remember living through years of IE6 stagnation,” tweeted Mozilla website security leader April King,”and I think in ten or twenty years that we will look back on this loss of ecosystem diversity in the same way.”

First published Dec 6, 9:49 a.m. PT.
Update, 10:47 a.m. PT, 11:26 a.m. PT and 2:24 p.m. PT: Adds further background, commentary, and analysis. 

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