When Samuel Maddock built a browser that lets friends watch an online video at the same time, he used what seemed like the cheapest and simplest option: Chromium, a free, open-source version of Google’s Chrome web browser.
Maddock’s creation worked well, but because it was based on Chromium, he needed another Google product called Widevine to authenticate users and prevent video piracy. He sent Google a request, outlining the project, and waited. And waited. Four months and 10 emails later he got a one-line answer: sorry, you can’t use the software for that.
He wasn’t doing anything illegal. In fact, using Google’s secure-streaming tool would have ensured his project was above-board. But the internet giant withheld access, without saying why. Maddock gave up on making a browser soon after.
“You have these gatekeepers like Google that decide which projects can work and if you’re not granted that permission you’re screwed,’’ Maddock said.
This is one small developer working on a small project. But his story demonstrates how Google’s dominance of the browser market — and the underlying technology tools — gives the company far-reaching control over how the web works, and who gets to create new ways of accessing it.
It’s another example of how the Alphabet Inc. unit’s power has grown to the point where regulators from India to the European Union are looking for ways to keep it in check. The EU has already fined Google for breaking antitrust laws in the markets for online search, display advertising and mobile operating systems. Chrome is an important cog in Google’s digital ad system, distributing its search engine and providing a direct view for the company into what users do on the web.
Few home-grown Google products have been as successful as Chrome. Launched in 2008, it has more than 63% of the market and about 70% on desktop computers, according to StatCounter data. Mozilla’s Firefox is far behind, while Apple’s Safari is the default browser for iPhones. Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer and Edge browsers are punchlines.
Google won by offering consumers a fast, customizable browser for free, while embracing open web standards. Now that Chrome is the clear leader, it controls how the standards are set. That’s sparking concern Google is using the browser and its Chromium open-source underpinnings to elbow out online competitors and tilt entire industries in its favor.
Most major browsers are now built on the Chromium software code base that Google maintains. Opera, an indie browser that’s been used by techies for years, swapped its code base for Chromium in 2013. Even Microsoft is making the switch this year. That creates a snowball effect, where fewer web developers build for niche browsers, leading those browsers to switch over to Chromium to avoid getting left behind.
This leaves Chrome’s competitors relying on Google employees who do most of the work to keep Chromium software code up to date. Chromium is open source, so anyone can suggest changes to it, but the majority of programmers who approve contributions are Google employees, and any major disagreements get settled by a small circle of senior Google employees.
Chrome is so ascendant these days that web developers often don’t bother to test their sites on competing browsers. Google services including YouTube, Docs and Gmail sometimes don’t work as well on rival browsers, sending frustrated users to Chrome. Instead of just another ship slicing through the sea of the web, Chrome is becoming the ocean.
“Whatever Chrome does is what the standard is, everyone else has to follow,” said Andreas Gal, the former chief technology officer of Mozilla.
Google didn’t target Mozilla in overt ways during Gal’s seven years at the company. Instead, he described it as death by a thousand cuts: Google would update Docs, or Gmail, and suddenly those services wouldn’t work on Mozilla.
“There were dozens and dozens of ‘oopsies,’ where Google ships something and, ‘oops,’ it doesn’t work in Firefox,’’ Gal said. “They say oh we’re going to fix it right away, in two months, and in the meantime every time the user goes to these sites, they think, ‘oh, Firefox is broken.’’’
Google has tried to mitigate this problem. It has a separate project focused on making different browsers behave in more uniform ways so website developers have less tweaking to do. And the company has advocated for more public standards that can be followed by all browsers.
“We take it seriously, the responsibility of being good stewards of the web,’’ said Darin Fisher, a vice president of engineering on the Chrome team. Google’s business relies on the web working for as many people as possible, so the company doesn’t have an interest in squashing competition, he said.
Even if it isn’t trying to sabotage competing browsers, Google has a financial motivation to dominate the market, Gal said. He now works at Apple Inc. after selling his startup Silk Labs to the iPhone maker in 2018.
“In the past there were these three, four major players with somewhat equivalent share between Microsoft and Google and Mozilla and Apple and nobody had this very clear advantage,’’ he said. “Today, especially in the desktop space, Google is definitely a monopolist.’’
That dominance means Google sets the standard for what the internet is supposed to be. And in that vision, advertising and user data collection are the defaults.
Earlier this month, Google announced a long-awaited decision on how Chrome handles online tracking software known as cookies. Other browsers have blocked third-party cookies by default, but Google chose to let users decide — and due to its dominance that will likely be the standard going forward. Shares of Criteo SA, a digital ad company that relies on cookies, jumped almost 10% on the news, the biggest gain in over a year.
“Chrome has become spyware,’’ said Brendan Eich, co-founder of Mozilla and the current CEO of Brave Software Inc.
Brave offers a browser that blocks ads and web tracking software, and it is developing a system that pays users small amounts when they visit certain sites. This could upend the internet advertising business. The only catch is that the Brave browser is built on Chromium.
Eich said it’s a trade-off he’s willing to make. Building a browser from scratch is a gargantuan task. But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Brave on Google’s ocean.
In August 2017, Netflix suddenly stopped working on Brave’s browser. After a flurry of emails, Brave Chief Technology Officer Brian Bondy discovered that a Google update had changed the way Netflix used Widevine — the same tool Maddock was trying to get permission from Google to use. Brave hadn’t been told about the changes, so its browser broke when users visited Netflix online. It took over two weeks to fix the problem.
“Small-share browsers are at the mercy of Google, and Google is stalling us for no communicated-to-us reason,’’ Bondy wrote in a post on the developer collaboration site Github at the time.
Even when people choose to download a competitor to Chrome, Google has ways to encourage them to come back. Vivaldi, a popular browser for the privacy-conscious crowd, has had trouble when it comes to running Google services like Docs and Gmail, said CEO Jon von Tetzchner. Some users logging into Google products on Vivaldi get prompts saying their browser isn’t optimized for them, or suggesting they download Chrome instead.
“It was very clearly targeting us,’’ von Tetzchner said. He even spoke to Google co-founder Sergey Brin about the issue, but hasn’t gotten a strong commitment the behavior would stop, he said.
Winning the browser war has done a lot more for Google than just allow it to create a friendly space for its other web services. When Chrome users are logged-in to a Google account, the company can follow them around the web, cataloging what sites they visit. All the data help Google’s ad products improve.
“The browser is the thing which sees the most of you,’’ said Eben Moglen, an antitrust law professor at Columbia Law School who has studied browsers and their role in competition for decades. Chrome has become outright hostile to services that seek to cut down on advertising, like ad blockers, Moglen added.
Fisher, the Chrome executive, said the web needs advertising to keep it affordable for people who might not be able to pay publishers and other website owners for access.
“Chrome is independent from the ads group, but of course we collaborate with them, we both have a shared goal of a free and open web,’’ Fisher said. “Part of making the web really great is that there’s a diversity of content for users to consume.’’
Diversity of browsers is another matter. If Microsoft, the world’s largest software maker, needs Chromium, it’s hard to imagine Google losing its grip any time soon.
“We have gone into it in the spirit of positivity and belief in collaboration and they have not disappointed us,’’ said Joe Belfiore, Microsoft vice president of Experiences and Devices, said. Does he worry that positivity might not last?
“We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it,’’ Belfiore said. “Let’s see how this plays out.”