The Value of Browser Diversity

At the beginning of 2019, I made a conscience effort to reduce my usage of Google’s Chrome browser. I felt like Google was collecting too much of my personally identifiable information (PII). Based on the sites I visited, I would see similar ads in Gmail, video recommendations on YouTube, and news recommendations on my Android device. It was very big brother like, and quite honestly, it started to freak me out a bit.

Instead of Chrome, I began using Mozilla’s Firefox browser. The switch was gradual, and I probably use Firefox for 2/3 of my web browsing these days. The best part, switching was easy. Outside of controls being in different places, the browsing experience is identical. It’s the beauty of the web. Standards allow any company to make a browser rendering engine, in theory.

In practice, the number of browser rendering engines is small. There are 3 primary rendering engines – Blink (Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge), Webkit (Apple Safari), and Gecko (Mozilla Firefox). There are a few others, but none have any significant market share. And of the three I mentioned, Blink dominates with over 70% market share (stats as of August 2020).

It begs the question, is browser diversity a necessity to maintain the health of the web, or is it OK if one engine dominates?

Dave Rupert recently penned a great article on browser diversity. While he didn’t necessarily say whether a single engine would be good or bad, he did an excellent job discussing the pros and cons from a technical perspective.

While I don’t feel qualified to discuss the technical benefits or ramifications that consolidation would bring, a lack of browser diversity scares me. Why? It’s the predatory privacy practices of the companies supplying the browser technology – Google, Microsoft, and Apple.

These companies are not altruistic entities. They are for profit companies that must answer to shareholders and deliver returns. They are out to make money, and they do it by monetizing our browsing behaviors and other personal information. Since these companies provide the browsers for free, people don’t realize the consequences. They are happy to use this so-called ‘free’ software in exchange for giving up their personal privacy. I know, because I’ve been and continue to be one of those users.

Another concern is that consolidation will result in one company setting web standards. In my opinion, the internet is too important for us to allow one company to control its technical direction. As Rupert points out in his article, having many cooks in the kitchen can make web feature development slow, in many cases painfully slow, but that lack of speed acts as a check and balance to make sure only good, safe, well-thought features are released in the wild. Having a single entity, which might mean a single team or even a single executive, in control of the direction of the web frightens me. Too many people around the world rely on the web and the internet to allow a small group, possibly one individual, to control its direction. Just like a well run democratic government has multiple branches to keep power distributed and in check, the web needs it too.

Unfortunately, building a browser engine is no longer a simple project. The web has gotten very complex, and the complexity is only increasing. If we, as consumers, insist on paying for our web browser software with our PII, then I fear that consolidation is the most likely outcome. Until we are willing to pay for our software, companies will be forced into a business model that relies on monetizing their users.

I’ve written about the importance of paying for software in the past, but I am just as guilty as the next person when it comes to web browsers. Given the options out there today, I’m not willing to pay, which makes me part of my own problem. However, if a viable option was available, one that offered equivalent features, equivalent performance, and guaranteed privacy, I’d be willing to pay. It would be a small price if it meant protecting one of our most valuable assets. One that has the chance to be our greatest invention, or, if not cared for properly, the scourge of our generation.