Sound & Complete

Browser Wars Are over and Google Won

·3 mins

Today I read that Mozilla will start putting contextual ads into Firefox address bar. It made me reflect on the current landscape of web browsers, and it doesn’t look good.

According to Wikipedia quoting StatCounter, Chrome has over 68% of the desktop market share as of last year. Safari comes pre-installed and set as default on macOS giving it a bit of an unfair advantage, and the same can be said about Microsoft browsers. Firefox, once a bastion of web standards and freedom, has less than 9% market share.

Mozilla Corporation, the company behind Firefox, is financially dependant on Google, and historically over 80% of its income came from Google in exchange for Google Search being the default search engine of the browser (even though Mozilla also has similar deals with other companies, such as Yahoo, eBay or Yandex). This puts Mozilla between a rock and a hard place, seeing as Google makes the world’s most popular browser. No wonder they’re seeking other business models and new sources of revenue.

Sadly, the very methods they employ will enrage the users they covet, the privacy-conscious, tech-savvy ideologists that use Firefox because it offers more advanced features (hello containers!) and better online protections. This market had previously been put off by Mozilla’s moves (remember Pocket?), and the ads-in-the-address-bar “feature” will only make things worse.

The other problem Mozilla has is that it’s playing a catch-up game with Chrome. Google committed such enormous resources to their web browser project and it has such an influence over what constitutes a “web standard” that it’s impossible to compete with it, or at least so it seems. If other browser developers don’t support what Chrome supports, users will leave because their favorite, Google-operated web apps stop working. But nobody wants to invest significant amounts of money to compete: Microsoft, Opera, Brave all employ Blink and V8 to render websites. What can or cannot be rendered on a website is essentially decided by Google.

It’s not as bad as it used to be during Microsoft IE days, because Chromium, the project behind Google Chrome, is open source and, theoretically, anyone can contribute. Theoretically, because up until recently, most major decision where approved by Google engineers, and even though the process opened up last year, majority of contributions still come from Google.

“What about Safari?”, I hear you ask. Well, Safari was, is, and will always remain a niche. It’s only available for one desktop OS and one mobile OS, both of which position themselves at the premium segments of their respective markets. Furthermore, Safari for macOS appears to be regressing. Version 14 introduced new API for content blocking, which crippled many extensions, and Safari 15 features a redesign that for me, and anecdotally for many of my fellow Mac users, makes it simply unusable. Yes, the browser is relatively fast and definitely more energy-efficient than anything else on macOS, but that’s where its advantages end.

So yes, “browser wars” seem to be officially over, and Google won. Typing this on Chrome 94 which is relatively fast and based largely on open source code, I can’t say I’m very sad. But it’s disappointing that we all quietly, slowly succumbed to Google’s domination in the area, and that there is no hope for this to change in the foreseeable future.