If I ask you, what browser you are using, you would probably answer Google Chrome. Indeed, its market share as of 2019 is about 70%. But if we take into consideration all Chrome-like browsers (Opera, Edge, Yandex Browser, etc.) it sums up to about 80%. It sounds perfect for web developers: fewer browser engines means less time spent making your website look consistent across browsers. But is it really?
What is a browser engine?
Let us start with the basics. A browser engine is an internal part of the browser that is responsible for parsing input data (HTML, CSS, JS) and producing the actual web page that you see on the screen. Every web browser out there has a browser engine under the hood. The stuff you see on the screen, including the address bar, the back/forward buttons, the bookmark manager and everything else is not a browser: it is merely an interface for the browser engine, who does all the work.
The purpose of a browser engine is evident: its job is to produce the visual representation of the webpage that we all love. It handles user interaction, protects our system, handles our passwords and credentials, provides accessibility accommodation where required, this list may go on and on. One important thing is that the browser engine is not used strictly in browsers. For example, email clients use it to render rich HTML emails and the Electron framework uses Chrome’s engine to develop desktop applications.
History of browser engines
Back in 1995, the dominant browser in the market was Netscape. There were no alternatives to match its functionality and performance at the time and Netscape enjoyed its 80% market share. But, as Netscape Navigator was the only product Netscape was generating revenue with, its financial situation was quite vulnerable. Along comes Microsoft with Internet Explorer 1.0. It lacked most of the features users wanted at the time, but it was only a matter of time before IE caught up with Netscape. Microsoft had a lot of resources to spare and used its monopoly on desktop operating systems to push IE forward. As it stared preinstalling IE 4.0 for free on all editions of Windows, Netscape went downhill, which led to its acquisition by America Online in 1998.
After Netscape’s downfall, IE quickly gained its user base and a market share of 94% in 2002. Microsoft quickly internalized this success and stopped actively developing IE, which was probably one of its biggest mistakes. After Netscape had lost the First Browser War, they open-sourced their Netscape Navigator and Mozilla Firefox was born. It quickly gained traction and easily caught up with IE in terms of features and performance. At the same time, Opera Software SA was actively developing its Opera Browser, which presented innovative technologies such as Opera Turbo and 100% compatibility with web standards. Apple was also developing its own Safari browser, shipping it by default with macOS since 2003.
The golden age of browser engines
The inferior quality of IE compared to Firefox, Safari, and Opera, as well as a number of anti-trust lawsuits by the Mozilla Foundation and Opera Software resulted in a rapid decline of IE’s market share. Though it still remained the most popular browser until 2011, it was mainly due to it being preinstalled on Windows and its usage in the corporate world. The web browser industry enjoyed a fierce competition between 4 main browser engines: Gecko (Firefox), Presto (Opera), WebKit (Safari) and Trident (IE). Each browser had its own unique feature set and a growing fanbase. Mozilla Foundation also partnered up with Opera Software to form WHATWG (Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group) which was developing and pushing new web standards and submitting them to W3C.
This is where Google comes into play. In 2008 it released the first version of their Chrome browser. Firstly it was based on WebKit, the same engine powering Safari. But later Google forked it, creating its own engine, named Blink.
Nowadays, the browser engine scene looks like this: we have a myriad of Chrome-like browsers (Chrome, Opera, Edge, Yandex Browser, Vivaldi, etc), Gecko-based Mozilla Firefox and WebKit-based Safari. Even though it looks like there is still competition, there is not: Chrome-like browsers are installed on most devices and Google does everything it can to make sure it stays so. Probably, the last factor that prevents Blink from a total monopoly is Apple’s web browser policy on IOS. It states that any browser developed for IOS has to use WebKit, thus giving it a significant userbase and leverage.
What does it mean for users
A lot, actually. Given Google has a monopoly on how we search on the internet, how we advertise on the internet and, now, how we use the internet, one can say that Google owns the internet. We have come a long way from introducing the internet as a way to escape centralized control and promote freedom of information, to handing it over to a giant monopolistic corporation.
Why is this bad? Google, like any other for-profit entity, does everything for a specific reason: to make money. And, with the ability to abuse its powers, it is very easy to do. Here are some examples of Google’s practices today.
Chrome Ad Blocker
You may be familiar with browser extensions like AdBlock Plus, maybe even an active user. These extensions allow you to turn off ads on every page you visit. A change in Chrome API, being pushed forward by Google, will render them unusable. Instead, Google introduces its own ad blocker, with a noble mission: it will block only “intrusive adverts that have a negative impact on users’ internet browsing experience“. You will be correct to assume it allows Google ads, as well as ads from Google partners. Google is also being hypocritical: while their ad guidelines explicitly prohibit auto-playing video ads, its YouTube ads are not blocked. Because why not.
Accelerated Mobile Pages
One other controversial practice is AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages). Google effectively developed its own web standard, without any collaboration with W3C and the industry and now actively forces websites to adopt it. Among other requirements, AMP pages have to be hosted on Google servers and have even stricter ad guidelines. Of course, Google ads are still allowed.
With AMP, Google started dictating to developers and publishers exactly how are they supposed to develop their websites, which technologies to adopt and what analytics to use. This standard is being forced on everyone because Google will show AMP pages at the top of the search results list, giving an artificial advantage to AMP websites. AMP alone may bring an end to the internet as we know it.
Even apart from AMP, Google’s practices are far from decent. It tries to drive users away from competitor’s browsers by using a deprecated API on their websites that make them slower on anything but Chrome. It is ironic that Google forces other developers to support bleeding-edge technology to appear in search results, but uses old and slow stack when developing its own products.
The worldwide web is governed by W3C, a committee that releases standards that specify how it should work. It was found in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee, the “creator” of the internet. This is a non-profit organization, administered by such organizations as MIT, European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics, Beihang University and Keio University. It is open for everyone, its operations are transparent and its primary objective is to keep the internet open for everyone.
W3C can shortly become history, thanks to Google. Instead of participating in the discussion and pushing standards that benefit everyone, it just proposes a standard and immediately implements it in Chrome, regardless of the community’s decision. For example, a proposal to give AMP pages an ability to show the original website URL, when, in fact, it is served from Google servers, is under severe criticism. But that did not stop Google from rolling it out in Chrome and partnering with Cloudflare to make it mainstream.
People need to understand that the internet is not what it was when first created. It is no longer just a place to share information. Right now, many people view it as a way to make money. It would be surprising if it did not adapt to address these objectives. While it is not necessarily bad, it allows larger corporations to abuse their powers and engage in monopolistic behaviors. While today Google is merely adjusting standards to better suit itself while leaving competitors behind, tomorrow it may decide to directly control what is allowed and what is prohibited on the internet. You can already see this behaviour emerge in YouTube, and it is only a matter of time until it rolls out to the wider audience.
What can you do?
The solution to prevent Google from having a monopoly on the internet is dead simple: do not use Google products. I know, it sounds scary at first, but trust me, it is not so bad. Browsers like Firefox and Safari are fully compatible with anything you find on the internet while respecting your privacy. Email providers like ProtonMail will handle all your email-related tasks while not selling info from your letters to thrid-parties. Map services like Apple Maps and Open Street Map will make sure you (and only you) will reach your destination. And finally, DuckDuckGo is an excellent search engine which can even be more helpful than Google (for example, StackOverflow integration).
Thank you for making it all the way to the end! Let me know what you think in the comments and share any other Google alternatives you are using.