Home / REVIEWS / Google gains power over web as Microsoft rebuilds its Edge browser on Chrome tech

Google gains power over web as Microsoft rebuilds its Edge browser on Chrome tech

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

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


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

Microsoft confirmed it will be using the Google’s open-source project at the heart of Chrome 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 accept those changes into its own browser. At the heart of Chromium is an engine called Blink which handles the browser’s core work of digesting website programming instructions and presenting the pages to us.

The 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 core browser 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. 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,” Joe Belfiore, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Windows, said in the blog post.

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.

Jumping on the Chromium bandwagon

Microsoft joins Opera, Samsung, Brave, Yandex, Baidu and Vivaldi in building their browsers built on Chrome technology. Most of those started on the Chromium foundation, but 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 — left some observers unsurprised about Microsoft’s move but not any more 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.

Chrome now is dominant, but unlike IE in the early 2000s, Google has been aggressively developing and pushing for new web 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 helped build 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.

The Chromium move also will mean Microsoft will adopt a faster 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’s not likely to attract a large fraction of users but that could reassure corporate IT managers.

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 like 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.

First published Dec 6, 9:49 a.m. PT.

Update, 10:47 a.m. PT: Adds further background, commentary, and analysis.

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