Google locking down Chromium

It looks as if Google is attempting to expand its domination of the browser market:

At this moment, Google Chrome is responsible for over 60{3549d4179a0cbfd35266a886b325f66920645bb4445f165578a9e086cbc22d08} of browser usage. (The exact number differs based on what graph you look at.) If you look at the numbers, Chromium-based browsers like Edge, Brave, Opera, and Vivaldi are starting to eat into Chrome’s number. Take Microsoft Edge for example. The first preview builds were released in April of 2020. By October of that year, it had reached 10{3549d4179a0cbfd35266a886b325f66920645bb4445f165578a9e086cbc22d08} market share and pushed Firefox to number 3. (Part of that market share, undoubtedly was caused by Microsoft pushing an update to replace Internet Explorer 11 and Edge Legacy with the new Chromium-based version.) If we learned one thing through the years, it’s that Google likes to dominate.

While it’s true that most of Google’s browser competitors use their own servers to store user bookmarks and passwords, they still use the same extensions as Chrome. For many people, it’s important to have access to certain extensions for work or fun. To borrow a familiar metaphor, the browser is the platform and the extensions are the applications that the user needs or wants to use.

What would happen to these Chromium-based browsers if Google blocked their access to the Google Chrome Store? Without access to their familiar tools, would they stay with Brave or Edge? I think many would switch back to Chrome because people tend to choose the path of least resistance.

The inherent problem with creating a new browser/platform is getting people to create addons/extensions for it. Case in point: before Microsoft switched to Chromium, it only had a few add-ons available. The majority of browser extensions are created by people as a hobby and maintaining two or more codebases seems more like a job than a hobby. The bottom line is that people would be less likely to create extensions, thus reducing the usability of the browser and leading to a loss of market share.

If you don’t think Google could do this, think again. Google has an iron grip on the Chromium project. As Steven Vaughan-Nichols points out “whatever Google wants to do with Chromium, Google can do it and it doesn’t matter what anyone else wants. This is not how open source is supposed to work. I think it’s time for all those Chromium developers out there to have a serious talk with Google. The vast majority of open-source projects don’t have a single company calling all the shots. Why should Chromium?”

Google Only Supports Open Source when It Benefits Them

Keep in mind that Google has a history of using open source to gain market share and then abandoning it. Android is the biggest example. From the beginning of its time with Google, Android was touted as THE open-source phone operating system. The Android Open Source Project was used by several projects to create their own version of Android. This helped make Android popular.

Then at a certain point, Google introduced an app called Google Play Services. This app is not open source and contains all of the stuff you need to access Google’s services. I’m sure that there is a workaround, but most people don’t want the added responsibility of tinkering with their phone to get it to work. (There is a minority who enjoys doing that and you know who you are.)

Another example is the Metastream saga. Back in 2019, a guy named Samuel Maddock created a side project named Metastream. It was going to be an Electron-based browser that would allow users across the web to watch videos at the same time. The videos would be synced up so that the users would enjoy the experience together. The only problem was that Samuel needed access to a DRM provider so that his users could watch videos on services like Netflix or Hulu.

For Electron/Chromium-based browsers, there is only one option Google Widevine. So, Samuel attempted to get a license for Widevine. Four months later, he got a response stating that “I’m sorry but we’re not supporting an open source solution like this”. In a follow up post, Samual listed other projects that ran into issues with Widevine and were left in the cold by Google. He also quoted Brian Bondy, Co-founder and CTO of Brave, who said, “This is a prime example for why free as in beer is not enough. Small share browsers are at the mercy of Google, and Google is stalling us for no communicated-to-us reason.”