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.
Google is already a company that exercises considerable influence over the direction of the Web’s development. By owning both the most popular browser, Chrome, and some of the most-visited sites on the Web (in particular the namesake search engine, YouTube, and Gmail), Google has on a number of occasions used its might to deploy proprietary tech and put the rest of the industry in the position of having to catch up.
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.
The latest version of Edge addresses the YouTube issue and reinstated Edge’s performance. But when the company talks of having to do extra work to ensure EdgeHTML is compatible with the Web, this is the kind of thing that Microsoft has been forced to do.
Microsoft’s decision both gives Google an ever-larger slice of the pie and weakens Microsoft’s position as an opposing voice. Even with Edge and Internet Explorer having a diminished share of the market, Microsoft has retained some sway; its IIS Web server commands a significant Web presence, and there’s still value in having new protocols built in to Windows, as it increases their accessibility to software developers.
But now, Microsoft is committed to shipping and supporting whatever proprietary tech Google wants to develop, whether Microsoft likes it or not. 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.
Web developers have historically only bothered with such trivia as standards compliance and as a way to test their pages in multiple browsers when the market landscape has forced them to. This is what made Firefox’s early years so painful: most developers tested in Internet Explorer and nothing else, leaving Firefox compatibility to chance. As Firefox, and later Chrome, rose to challenge Internet Explorer’s dominance, cross-browser testing became essential, and standards adherence became more valuable.
With Chrome, Firefox, and Edge all as going concerns, a fair amount of discipline is imposed on Web developers. But with Edge removed and Chrome taking a large majority of the market, making the effort to support Firefox becomes more expensive.
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.
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.