Google Chrome is the dominant Internet browser platform on the planet, both on computers and phones. It stays at the top thanks to continued development with an eye on wide compatibility, high performance, and a vast library of extensions.
It’s the default browser included on most Android-powered cell phones, and there’s a running gag in the Windows PC community that people only use Microsoft’s Edge to download Chrome when they first buy a new PC.
What you might not know is that the powerful guts of the Chrome Browser are actually open-source. The collection of technologies powering Chrome is built on a platform known as Chromium, and Google gently encourages other companies to use it as the underpinning of their browser projects.
That’s right, you may have been secretly using a Chrome variant in the past without realizing it. If you’ve ever browsed the Steam storefront through its client, or used the built-in web browser…you were secretly using Chromium. If you’ve ever installed Opera? Also Chromium.
“You talk about this almost like it’s a bad thing, Alex. Chrome runs great and I like it. Why is this a big deal?”
Well, it’s both bad and good. Chrome’s ubiquity means that it’s the de facto platform for internet development. You always want your web site or other online application to work correctly and efficiently inside of Chrome. But the elephant in the room, for some users, is Google’s rampant data collection.
Google is a much bigger and more data-rich company today than they were 11 years ago when they kicked the Chromium snowball off the top of the proverbial hill.
The Google of today wants all of your data, and by using Chrome and signing into a Google account, you’re willingly giving it to them. Yes, you’re getting access to the biggest online platform in the world, and Google’s continued development efforts on top of Chromium, for free, in return. But a lot of us, myself included, didn’t stop to think about whether this was worth it at the beginning. And now the world is different as a result.
The more developers that put effort into the Chromium platform, the more powerful the engine underneath Chrome will become, and the more reach Google will have to continue to push out the competition in favor of their data-hungry policies.
We’ve pretty much, collectively, already “lost” this war in favor of the convenience of modern web services, depending on your point of view. And Google is right at the center of that.
For years now, the two big holdouts against the Google data collection browsing onslaught on the PC platform have been Mozilla, and Microsoft. Both used to have larger market shares than they’ve got now, and they’ve both watched Google slowly erode their userbases in spite of impressive efforts to the contrary. Microsoft also had a highly publicized showdown over browsers with the US government, you might remember.
I’m in no way saying that either of these other choices are perfect, but even having this choice is important in an increasingly-tricky modern data landscape.
The Firefox rendering engine is called Gecko, and it offers enough of its own flair, features, and performance that many people prefer it to Google’s software. Plus, Firefox is very big on not taking all of your data and using it for their own purposes. It’s a big part of their company ethos, and a big part of their appeal.
Microsoft, in an effort to shake the branding specter around Internet Explorer (even though the final versions of that browser were pretty darn good), started over again, creating a brand new engine and browser in Edge. Edge was built from the ground up to ship alongside Windows 10, and offered all sorts of interesting features intended to make it friendlier to new users. You could draw on web pages and easily share those drawings with friends, for example.
Although I never bought into some of these new features, Edge was impressively performant. It had comparable speed to Chrome, and for many laptop users, better battery life. I liked it, in my many attempts to escape from Google Chrome, but it always had just enough hitches with all the Google services I’ve integrated into my life that I always went back.
(Yes, I even went back to Chrome after loving the first release of Firefox Quantum. I’m as much of a Google services user as anyone out there.)
Edge never managed to make much of a dent in the browser market in spite of aggressive marketing on Microsoft’s part. So now, they’re going for a new tactic. They’ve entirely rebooted Edge development around the Chromium platform, and their aim is to make a browser with the same guts that’s better than Chrome.
It’s ironic that Microsoft was regulated into giving people an easier way to choose an alternate browser, and now most of us have willingly given over our data to a different big corporation, which Microsoft’s new browser development is going to indirectly support.
This week, Microsoft released the new Chromium-powered Edge for anyone to try. You can download beta versions on their web site. Since I download every new browser for some reason, I dove in and opted for the “Canary” build, which updates nightly, just to test it out.
It’s not just a skin of Chromium, though at first glance it kind of looks like it. Microsoft is trying to greatly optimize performance compared to Chrome, which is a noble goal on paper apart from all this data stuff. They’ve stripped out a lot of Google-developed technologies and replaced them with their own code, and they’ve promised that the browser will be faster and easier on battery life than Google’s version.
That’s a tall order, but I think Microsoft certainly has the development muscle to do it. They’ve got a lot of talented software engineers and a massive pile of cash.
And in theory, a better Chromium would be better for the entire internet.
They’re giving a presentation tomorrow about all of this, and the slides leaked out. Microsoft hasn’t gotten mad about this it seems, because they’ve left the presentation public as of this writing, and it’s all about the exhaustive work they’re doing on the Chromium platform. Here’s the slide that a lot of folks are talking about giving a hint at the extent of the changes.
But this whole thing is so weird. In some ways, it feels like Microsoft has given up. But there’s also an inherent determination apparent in them using Google’s open source engine as their new foundation and trying to one-up the other big corporation at their own game. I know that everyone talks altruistically about the “future of the web,” but there’s no getting around the competitive corporate spirit at the heart of this.
As far as the actual performance goes, New Chromium Edge is already impressive, but I ran into some hiccups.
It’s not really fair to test such an early browser against a platform as established as Chrome, but in my limited testing over the last day, the new version of Edge works well and it’s already delivering on some of Microsoft’s optimization promises.. On average, it uses about 20 percent less RAM and a little less CPU on my i7–8750H-powered laptop than Chrome does when running the same compliment of tabs. And it feels just as quick and snappy.
Unfortunately, it’s also still clearly a product that isn’t finished. I tried to write this very article inside the new Edge, but Medium’s editor would throw up an error about every two minutes and stop me from writing. This was a little frustrating. It means that Edge isn’t yet featured enough to run a web site I use every day to its fullest. It also means it’s different enough from Chrome to break compatibility.
The wide usability of Chrome across the Internet is one of the biggest advantages of basing a browser on Chromium, and hopefully Microsoft can maintain this while bringing their own features and optimizations to the table.
Seeing two software giants go at each other on the same browser platform is a wild thing, and I’ll keep an eye on it as Edge continues to improve. Google is at a clear early advantage in this fight, with many years of development experience on the Chromium platform over Microsoft. And they also have everyone’s Chrome usage data to make “improvements,” and potentially stay ahead of whatever Microsoft can do with their customizations.
At least, when they’re not busy making piles of money on that data.
On Apple platforms, there’s Safari, which is still a relatively capable browser, running on the Webkit engine. Safari maintains a decent foothold in the market largely through its presence on iOS devices. However, Apple doesn’t update the desktop version of Safari nearly as fast as the other browsers, and they don’t trumpet its exceptional power efficiency as much as they used to a few years ago. Similarly to Google, if you go with Safari you’re entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, although Apple has recently doubled-down on a vague commitment to consumer data privacy.
My never-ending quest to escape Google Chrome just got a lot harder. In New Edge, we might get a better version of Chrome out of the deal, but I can’t also help but be bummed about the loss of Edge’s old speedy engine. I can understand the desire to make “The Web” an easy, standards based platform for developers, but I’m a little uneasy about the continued growth of the Google Data Empire.
More good options are generally better for users in the long run, not worse.