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Browser Monoculture Debates are Back!... Sort Of!

Browser Monoculture Debates are Back!... Sort Of!

10 June 2021

For almost as long as web browsers have existed, developers and enthusiasts have debated a hypothetical scenario where one browser (probably a commercial product) captures such a large share of the userbase that works on or for any others is essentially rendered pointless. This state, referred to as “browser monoculture”, was initially postulated and debated in the early 1990s when Netscape Navigator almost became ubiquitous. The debate flared again in the early 2000s when Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (which was, ironically, the major force behind Netscape’s downfall) was such a de facto standard that many websites, including governmental ones, weren’t fully viewable or functional in other browsers. Now, some 15 years later, Microsoft has reignited the debates about monoculture by transitioning their Edge browser from a proprietary engine to Chromium, the open-source browser engine that’s developed by Google and serves as the backbone to more than 70% of the world’s web traffic.

In fact, you’re likely reading this sentence in either Chrome or a Chromium-based browser. And that might not be a good thing.

The War Over Monoculture

Opponents of a monoculture tend to argue that it leads to stagnated innovation, a sharp increase in security concerns, and a power dynamic that gives a single entity almost unilateral control of how the web looks and functions. These aren’t unfounded or purely hypothetical concerns, either. Microsoft’s notoriously slow and uneven development of Internet Explorer is commonly attributed to the fact that the company didn’t need to conform their browser to a changing Internet so much as a changing Internet was forced to conform to their quirky, often-archaic browser. Advances in web development or security that were made outside of Microsoft all but fell through the cracks, never to be seen or enjoyed by the huge numbers of people using Internet Explorer. With that single sample, we can see all of the most pressing concerns about browser monoculture exemplified.

On the other hand, proponents of a monoculture argue that having only one set of code to deal with could give developers the time and focus necessary to build more substantial features/functions into websites. Proponents also argue that a single browser will inherently make these new developments move at a quicker pace since they’ll only have to be perfected once rather than 3 or 4 or more times. Some also believe that a single browser could also be more secure than the heterogeneous ecosystem we have now because, even though everyone would be vulnerable to the same attacks, all of the world’s developers would be working on those same vulnerabilities at the same time; we might all be exposed to common risks, yes, but our total time of exposure would be much lower and, therefore, our collective net security would likely increase.

Chromium is a Different Situation

Right now, the Chromium engine is behind at least 70% of the world’s Internet traffic. And while the browser Chrome does account for a large majority of that total, the fact is that there are other popular browsers based on Chromium that are almost completely outside of Google’s sphere of influence. That makes this a markedly different situation than what came before with Netscape or Internet Explorer because those engines were proprietary and practically inseparable from the products they drove. There were no competing products built on those architectures. Chromium is a completely different animal because it can be turned into something that runs completely contrary to Google’s intention. Check out Brave and its emphasis on security to see that idea in action; that browser sells itself as Chrome without Alphabet’s well-known data collection habits attached.

What we’re seeing with Chromium is the best of both worlds—monocultural and heterogeneous ecosystems—come together to perform just as their proponents imagine. That’s the important distinction between browsers and browser engines. The old criticisms of the Netscape or Internet Explorer monocultures don’t apply here because Chromium is just the backbone, not a browser in and of itself. The situation that’s developing now is probably closer to what proponents of a monoculture had in mind, at least in terms of expanding functionality and ease of use. Now that Microsoft and their engineers are working in that ecosystem, those hypothetical benefits will probably manifest even more strongly.

Final Thoughts

Whew. That’s a lot of information to process. But what does it all imply? Well, that’s hard to say. Right now the Chromium revolution doesn’t seem to carry the same risks or inherent problems as the last market-saturating browsers did. The fact that there are Chromium-based browsers in direct competition with one another and addressing one another’s flaws hammers that point home. But that doesn’t mean that Google couldn’t eventually tighten the reigns and bring all of the browsers built on their code into a more homogeneous state. Anything could happen, of course. But right now cautious optimism about the proliferation of Chromium seems like a safe default mode.

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