So Microsoft is going to retire EdgeHTML and use Chromium instead for Edge while not really answering the question if the web [is] better off with less engine diversity. This upset people, and Mozilla, especially, is worrying about the future:
Will Microsoft’s decision make it harder for Firefox to prosper? It could. Making Google more powerful is risky on many fronts. [...] If one product like Chromium has enough market share, then it becomes easier for web developers and businesses to decide not to worry if their services and sites work with anything other than Chromium. That’s what happened when Microsoft had a monopoly on browsers in the early 2000s before Firefox was released. And it could happen again.
Before you lament the return to a Microsoft-like monopoly, remember what happened to Microsoft’s monopoly. In fact, remember what happened to the lineal descendant of that monopoly just last week. Near-monopolies do not necessarily mean the end of the web.
Back then, Microsoft stopped developing IE because it thought it had won. Right now, Google is doing no such thing — in fact, I think it’s moving too fast rather than too slow.
Back then, Microsoft welcomed the IE-only badges that sprung up on countless websites. Right now, the Chrome devrel team does not. In fact, they don’t hesitate to criticise Chrome-only sites created by other parts of Google.
Also, don’t forget WebKit. Right now web developers pretend there are only two rendering engines left, Gecko and Blink, but there is in fact a third one, and especially on mobile it’s quite important. (When did you last create a site that didn’t really have to work on iOS?)
Today’s situation is very different from fifteen years ago — though I still think web developers switching to Firefox as their default browser is a good idea. (No, I haven’t yet done so either.)
But I don’t really want to talk about browser diversity, or about the relative merits of present-day Google and past Microsoft.
Instead, I want to talk about headcount.
The IE team first asked for my regarded opinion somewhere in 2005 or so, when they were gearing up toward IE7. Since then I’ve been in touch with them, and followed their progress with interest, occasionally submitting feature lists or clarifying our web developer point of view.
During all those years, I had the distinct feeling the IE team was under-staffed — a feeling that was occasionally, if privately, confirmed by team members. It seemed that, while Microsoft had decided to continue the development of IE, it didn’t want to commit the full resources that the project warranted.
That’s why, in the immediate aftermath of Microsoft confirming the rumour, I was quite surprised to see a We’re hiring message. (Granted, the actual job descriptions don’t mention Chromium, but they were written in October or November.)
Next, I saw this tweet by Tom Dale:
I understand why people are nervous about a Chrome monoculture. I think this case is a little different though. Microsoft has an army of engineers working on Edge. They’re one of the few companies who can go toe-to-toe with Google funding browser development.
Now I don’t follow Tom, and the only reason I saw his tweet is that it was retweeted by an Edge team member. Sure, RT !== endorsement, but this was a curious coincidence, to say the least.
Is one unexpected benefit of the switch to Chromium that the Edge team can actually expand? It’s easier to get Chromium engineers than EdgeHTML ones, that’s for sure.
If Microsoft does solve its headcount problems, then things get interesting — especially on Android. Sure, Microsoft has more opportunities for expanding its market share elsewhere, notably Windows 7 (where EdgeHTML never ran), but Android is by far the most interesting one.
One huge advantage of moving to Chromium is that Edge can now be easily ported to Android. This tweet appears to confirm that an Android version is in the planning.
Let’s jump sideways for a moment. Google Services is a suite of Android apps such as Play, Search, Maps, YouTube, and other crucial services that pretty much define how useful a smartphone is. It also contains Google Chrome. Android vendors get the option of using Google Services for free, provided they use ALL of them. All non-Chinese ones actually do so, and Google Services is an important part of the hold Google has on the web and mobile markets. Also, it puts Google Chrome on every Android phone.
What if Microsoft offered the Android vendors an alternative? Microsoft has a search engine, maps, and other services. YouTube can be viewed in a browser as well as in an app — and now it has the browser. Only an alternative to the Play Store is missing — so far. It’s quite possible that some Android vendors would seriously consider such an offer. It would ease Google’s stranglehold.
In that light, I found it interesting that HTC is experimenting with Brave as its default browser on one phone model. (True, the HTC Exodus is a “blockchain phone” and when I recently visited the local phone store they didn’t have any HTC whatsoever on offer, and nomen is most definitely not an omen. Still, interesting.) And if this example doesn’t convince you, remember Samsung Internet. Non-Google Chromium browsers are a thing on Android. But they aren't part of a set of services — yet.
Anyway, IF the Edge team gets more people, and IF Microsoft decides to go the Android route, the switch to Chromium may become interesting very fast.
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