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Everything Is Chrome | Vale.Rocks
Essay

Everything Is Chrome

  • 2365 words
  • 8 minute read

The chances are you’ve heard of Google Chrome. It’s currently the biggest browser in the world, but that comes with issues. Issues that I think need addressing. However, it’s crucial to examine how we reached this stage to form comprehensive opinions. Let’s start at the start with the birth of the first browser.

The Early Days

In 1990, WorldWideWeb (later known as Nexus) was released by Tim Berners-Lee for the NeXTSTEP operating system exclusively. This was the first web browser and the sole way to see the web. In 1992, the first stable version of the Line Mode Browser was released, with support for the more widely used X Window System. Following that were many more browsers, such as Erwise and ViolaWWW, and later Cello and Lynx, but there was one that really stood out. Releasing in 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications’ Mosaic came with big changes and huge influence.

A vintage web browser interface displaying the homepage of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. The website is shown in an early version of the Mosaic web browser, with a simple layout and minimal graphics.
Screenshot of Mosaic version 1.2.

Mosaic was a marked shift. It was the first browser to display images in line with the rest of the content and was notably easier to setup. As with all things in this early stage of the web, it didn’t stay stagnant for long. Towards the end of 1994, Mosaic began losing its dominance to a new player. Netscape.

Inspired by the success of Mosaic, Netscape very quickly made a name for itself in the browser arena. It introduced showing content as it downloaded, which made it preferable for the average dial-up user who previously had to wait for the entire page to load before it would display. Its flagship browser, Netscape Navigator, was one of the first to support JavaScript.

Around this time, Opera emerged. It entered the market with its own proprietary layout engine, titled Elektra.

The First Browser War

Microsoft took notice of Netscape’s success and saw the internet as a profitable market. They created the now infamous Internet Explorer. Initially considered inferior by many, Explorer began to slowly claw away some market share for itself, gradually chipping away at Navigator and its competitors.

Netscape Navigator came in two editions: Gold and Standard. With the release of version 4, the Gold Edition (which was notable for having many extra functions that negatively impacted stability) was rebranded to Netscape Communicator. This name change was a shot in the foot that affected their brand recognition and, bundled with performance slower than Microsoft’s new Internet Explorer 5, spelled their demise.

By the time the new millennia rolled around, many new browsers had launched (such as KDE’s Konqueror), Netscape was on its deathbed, and Explorer was thriving, with a peak market share of 95%. Google also began showing some interest in the browser market with the release of Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for Microsoft’s browser, though. Microsoft was accused of leveraging its dominant position in the market to unfairly promote Internet Explorer over other browsers to stifle competition.

This came to a head in 2001 with the ominous sounding United States of America vs Microsoft Corporation. It concluded with Microsoft drafting a settlement proposal that permitted PC manufacturers to use non-Microsoft software.

The Second Browser War

Shortly after this lawsuit, in 2003, Apple released their own browser, Safari, which quickly gained popularity on their Macs, although they initially failed to release it elsewhere. Safari used the WebKit engine, a fork of the KHTML and KJS libraries from KDE’s browser, Konqueror. Also in 2003, Opera 7 released with a large rewrite and a new layout engine, titled Presto.

By the time 2004 rolled around, a product concocted by a small group formed by Netscape in 1998 had materialised. The product became Firefox, and the group became the Mozilla Foundation. The same year, rumours began swirling that Google was building a browser of its own.

Firefox was free, leaving little barrier to entry, and people were more then interested in leaving Internet Explorer, which had gained a reputation for poor security and questionable support for web standards. Firefox also used a unique rendering engine called Gecko and was open source.

Upon release, Firefox immediately challenged Explorer’s dominance. Within a mere nine months, the browser had amassed in excess of 60 million downloads. It continued to grow until it’s peak in 2009, with just over 30% market share.

Apple realised that they were limiting themselves by only including their browser on their own OS. As such, they released a version for Microsoft Windows. Unfortunately, this couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the next year Google finally entered the browser market and released Chrome.

The Rise of Chrome

Despite initial reluctance from Google CEO Eric Schmidt to enter the browser wars, he eventually relented, and in 2008, Google Chrome released. Using components from Firefox and Apple’s WebKit, it was built upon Chromium, an open source base also developed by Google. The release was marked with a short comic by Scott McCloud.

It didn’t see success as instant as Firefox, but instead slowly crept up, to the point that by 2012 it was beating all other major browsers. From that point on, it only continued to grow and has taken complete dominance.

In 2012, Safari was discontinued for Windows, where its market share had been decimated. However, it’s continued to remain a popular choice on Apple operating systems.

The following year, Opera announced its intention to switch from Presto to WebKit, although around the same time, Google announced they would be forking WebKit, to which they were already the largest contributor, to create Blink. Following this, Opera revised their plans and moved to Blink.

With 2015 came Microsoft’s attempt to reaffirm their place in the browser market. They unveiled Edge, a new browser built from the ground up with their own proprietary EdgeHTML and open source Chakra engines. Following this unveiling, they announced plans to sunset Internet Explorer and subsequently adopted Edge as the new default browser in Windows.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, Edge wasn’t much liked upon release. While praised for performance, it was slandered for its lack of features and poor design choices, among other issues. Microsoft saw this and announced in 2018 that it would rebuild Edge as a Chromium based browser. This move was completed in 2020 and was seen much more favourably.

This left the web with three major engines: Google’s Blink, Mozilla’s Gecko, and Apple’s WebKit. Almost every browser currently in existence relies on one of these three engines.

Apple’s WebKit sees significant use on its own devices. Safari is the browser of choice for most MacOS users, as it’s preinstalled. WebKit also sees unanimous use on both iOS and iPadOS, where all browsers are relegated to merely a front for it. It also sees a small amount of use in an assortment of other browsers, although it’s very minimal.

Mozilla’s Gecko sees very minimal use outside of Firefox. It is used by a few Firefox forks, such as the privacy oriented Tor Browser, but very little beyond that.

Google’s Blink sees the most use by far. Just about any browser that you might use is using Blink. This is what this article has been building up to, and where the issues lies. Almost everything uses Blink.

Edge? Blink. Opera? Blink. Opera GX? Blink. Vivaldi? Blink. Brave? Blink. Samsung Internet? Blink. UC? Blink. Silk? Blink.

The Problem with Chrome

The list above is just the tip of the iceberg; I could continue to list many more. There is no choice in the browser market. It’s all just Blink, and Blink is Chrome, and Chrome is Google. This means that Google has complete and absolute control over the browser market. Bundle this with the most popular search engine, and they have complete control over the web.

This simply isn’t acceptable. The web, at its core, is open. That is what was defined when it was created, and that is how it must stay. Almost everyone on this planet relies on the web in some way or another, and the idea that a single entity can control the entire thing is preposterous.

The interface of Google Chrome displaying the browser's minimalistic design with tabs, address bar, and navigation buttons. The browser is open to the Wikipedia homepage.
Screenshot of Google Chrome version 96.

If you’ve been reading attentively, you may remember the comic I mentioned that was released alongside Chrome. Well, in 2022, a parody released with a few changes. It outlines a few of the things that Google is doing within Chrome that have far reaching implications.

First of all, the privacy implications. There is a lot to go into there, such as the fact that Google tracks just about everything you do and collects it to build a profile on you, but I don’t think I’ve got much to say that isn’t said better by the comic. I will note that almost everything you do in Chromium is tracked, and there is no true way to disable it.

Something I do have more to add to is something touched on briefly in the comic. The advent of Manifest v3 and its implications.

Manifest v3

Google has an extension platform with their Web Store. It allows developers to post extensions that allow users to increase the capabilities of their browser. There are many excellent extensions that come with this, but perhaps the most useful are ad blockers.

Ad blockers completely remove advertisements from the document flow, significantly improving the user experience. Alphabet Inc, the company behind Google, makes a lot of their money through these ads and, as such, isn’t much a fan of ad blockers.

To combat this, they’re implementing Manifest v3. In the context of a browser extension, a manifest file determines things such as what permissions an extension needs to run. Version 3 will restrict the ability of tools that manipulate network requests.

They’ve been planning on rolling it out but seem to keep postponing it whenever public outrage grows too much. As of the time of writing, they intend to release it in June 2024 and depreciate previous versions by June 2025.

It isn’t just ad blockers that will be impacted by this change. Many privacy extensions, which rely on filtering out tracking requests, will also be negatively impacted.

This change will trickle down to all Chromium based browsers. If they dare to opt out then they’ll lose access to Google’s Chrome Web Store. This is a change that will benefit Google the most out of any affected party.

Accelerated Mobile Pages

Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) is another excellent example of the problems with Google having power. AMP is a framework that aims to improve the performance of web content, particularly on mobile. It improves speed by restricting certain elements and optimising content delivery. While these are great intentions, they’ve seen much good criticism.

One large criticism is that it gives Google a huge amount of control over the way content is displayed on the web, which influences how things are built and monetized. It also has impacts on privacy, and security.

Another criticism is that Google prioritises AMP links above others, potentially impacting the visibility of non-AMP content. Google’s “Top Stories” section, which is located above the main search results, exclusively displayed AMP links. This more or less forced publishers into using AMP if they wanted any exposure. They only removed the AMP requirement in 2021 after facing legal threats.

AMP is just another way that Google has shown that they are not content with simply existing within the web, but instead wish to control it. If you’d like to read more about AMP and its impact, then I’d suggest this Reddit post from the creator of AmputatorBot.com.

Web Environment Integrity

In April of 2023, some Google engineers created a GitHub repository explaining the details of a proposal for Web Environment Integrity (WEI). Despite huge negative feedback, code started being implemented into Chromium in preparation for implementation. Fortunately, the proposal was abandoned in November, and what had been implemented was removed, although a replacement for Android WebViews titled “Android WebView Media Integrity API” was swiftly proposed and looks to enter testing in early 2024.

You may be wondering exactly what it is. WEI is more or less a way to verify that a site is ‘genuine’. It can be best described as Digital Rights Management (DRM) for the web and, wouldn’t you know, could’ve also impacted ad blockers if they were found to be altering the web environment’s integrity. Perhaps the impact of WEI most relevant to this article is the fact that browsers, especially those out of the mainstream or that offer unique or uncommon features, might have found themselves considered ‘untrusted’, and therefore severely limited.

I could continue with further examples, but I think the point is made, and I expect you’ve gathered the picture. The web is dominated by Chrome, and something must be done about it.

The Death of Firefox Support

As Bryce Wray illustrates in his article “Firefox on the Brink?” the US Web Design System mandates official support for browsers exceeding 2% usage on US Government-run websites. A similar requirement is set by the British government. As Wray suggests, it may be a lot sooner than we expect that Firefox loses its position in the web. I very much recommend reading his article.

Taking Action

You’re likely wondering what you can do. The answer is simple: use another browser. As I’ve said, most browsers out there are based on Chromium, so I would suggest Firefox. It’s free, it’s open source, and Mozilla has consistently shown a commitment to both the user and the web. If you’re super privacy conscious and need even further control of your data or live in a country prone to censorship, then you might consider the Tor Browser.

Share this article around and promote its message. Preserving an open web is crucial. Failure to achieve this will lead to disaster, and we can’t let it happen.

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