The Browser Monopoly

There is really only one Big Tech monopoly that I actively worry about. It’s not Amazon, Facebook or Apple, though they are all extremely dominant in their respective fields and do act in anti-competitive ways that merit regulatory remedy. Rather, the tech monopoly that I wonder about is arguably one of the more mundane parts of the modern internet experience: your web browser, and its most likely source – Google.

Google Chrome has been the world’s top web browser since roughly late 2012, and has only grown in popularity since:

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But crucially, Google’s grip on the browser market extends far beyond Chrome. Google is also the owner and developer of the free, open-source web browser Chromium, which is now the underlying code behind not only the Opera browser, but Edge, Microsoft’s successor to the much-maligned Internet Explorer. (As well as two dozen other browsers you probably don’t care about.)

In short, Google – the world’s largest advertiser and keeper of personal data – now also enjoys substantial control over the vast majority of the world’s portal to the internet. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Why Chrome Exists

Google Chrome was conceived and developed for a fairly straightforward purpose: advertising. Google called this “driving innovation on the web,” and to be fair, Chrome introduced a lot of neat new features (Porn “Incognito Mode,” multithreaded memory changes, tabs and more). But what Google was really doing was laying the groundwork for the ability to deliver all sorts of new online ad formats (like video) and complicated Javascript behind them that would help track and target users more effectively. The first created new, higher-margin ad products that Google (and others) could sell; the second would give advertisers and marketers new tools to convince their companies of ROI on those ads, enabling more digital ad spending over newspapers or whatever.

In other words, it was a win-win for Google.

If, like me, you work in and with web development, you know how much more complicated webdev and the Javascript ecosystem has gotten even since then. There are approximately a billion different Javascript frameworks. Facebook is sending down 7MB in uncompressed Javascript just to run; GMail, almost 4MB. Websites have become far more interactive, but at great cost to performance for anyone without a late-model phone. On the web’s war for user attention-seconds, there’s a whole arms race going on to introduce novel new Javascript tricks based on Chrome’s V8 engine – all of which drives ad impressions.

Product/User Dislocation

In The Internet As Television, I lamented the drift of the modern web towards favoring passive consumption of “content” over all else. But we should also bemoan the gradual sacrifice of user privacy and security as well. Despite highly visible examples of how easily personal data is tracked, recorded and weaponized by the advertising-ravenous web, the harms are hard to understand and extremely opaque to most people.

Yet product needs proliferate. Ad blocking, for example, has exploded in popularity in recent years. I changed my mind on this earlier this year, and let me tell you, I am never going back. Ad blocking is both highly effective and simply a material improvement of one’s whole online experience, which its broad adoption easily demonstrates. Another example is passwords. Passwords are a technology straight out of the 1980s, an absolute lowest-common-denominator system of authentication. Password managers like LastPass and 1Password are strong, secure and reliable alternatives that live right in your browser and make a huge difference for personal security. (Seriously, if you do not use a password manager, stop reading this and go do it. I am personally a very happy LastPass customer.) It is mind-boggling that basic tools like these are not yet standard features in browsers.

That is, until you remember that classic internet maxim: you, dear user, are not the customer. You’re the product.

Product choices like these can be traced directly back to who provides the biggest web browsers, and why they’re doing it. Google is fundamentally in the business of advertising, which is why they have absolutely no interest in limiting ad impressions, or preventing the sharing of your personal data. I suspect that this is primarily why they don’t bother with password manager features, either, though it’s an open question.*

* Note – I don’t believe that company liability is really the root reason. The way existing password managers work, the vendor’s liability even if they are hacked is minimal. They don’t hold any passwords!

The browser is the new OS

Since I work in SaaS (and enterprise SaaS in particular), I have a keen interest in how browsers support software running in them. I’m far from the first to observe that the browser is the new operating system runtime. The wide adoption of browser-based tools are what make the difference between using a PC or a Mac largely a personal choice today at most companies, and what makes the whole SaaS industry run.

As anyone who works in SaaS will tell you, QA and testing across the full range of available browsers is a huge pain in the ass. As a product manager, something that brings me a lot of joy is when I get to bring the hammer down and end support for some barely used, crappy browser (I’m not saying IE9, but I’m also not not saying it, either). Standardization on something like Chrome/V8 is actually very useful for us, in this sense. We have a pretty good sense of how our Javascript will execute, where and how we can tighten up performance, and simulate the kind of experience most of our users will have.

That said, I’m always conscious that we are living on someone else’s standards. Sure, Chromium and the V8 engine are open-source, but they still belong to Google in a way that, say, TCP/IP or IMAP does not. As more and more of the software industry moves to SaaS, we are all dealing with this. This is why Microsoft’s decision to kill Internet Explorer, once the leading portal to the web, and replace it with a Chromium-based successor says so much about its new direction as a company. I suspect that decision had more to do with clearly understanding Microsoft’s strengths and weaknesses than anything else.

Distribution is dominance

There are only two meaningful alternatives to Google’s browser, and the reason why comes down to distribution.

Google can distribute products on the web better than any other single company. When it placed a callout link to download Chrome right under its search bar, it effectively sealed IE’s demise. Nothing that Microsoft could do would ever reach as many potential users, or drive adoption, at anywhere near the same scale, and they eventually came to understand this.

Besides Chrome and Chromium browsers, there are really only Safari and Firefox.

Safari’s usage is almost entirely driven by the ubiquity of iOS devices, and that’s actually just fine by Google. Google is paying Apple a cool $12 billion in 2019 to remain Safari’s default search engine, because the amount they make from all those searches (and the ads they support) is far greater. Relatively few people change their device default browsers, so Apple’s hardware dominance is simply an end-run around Google that is difficult for anyone else to re-create. Apple is gradually making it harder for Google, Facebook and marketers everywhere to track users and attribute ads to them – by blocking third-party cookies by default and its latest ITP updates. Lots of people expect them to even more tightly restrict what cookies can even do in the future. (All the better, since you can then turn to apps running on iOS!)

Nevertheless, Safari only sits in the pretty stable mid-teens in terms of global browser share.

I am a Firefox user. Firefox hovers in the high single-digits in terms of browser share, having gradually lost ground for a decade. It is a very good browser with excellent features (I particularly like its Facebook Container feature, which came standard.) Nevertheless, Mozilla, the maker of Firefox and Silicon Valley non-profit institution, can simply never hope to meaningfully compete with the distribution advantages of a Google or Apple.

If I were a Product executive at Mozilla, I would be banging the table to introduce useful, paid products that could enrich and support the Firefox ecosystem. Chief among these would be a low-cost, independent email service focused on privacy and spam protection that would allow people to migrate off of Gmail; a VPN service; a media/content whitelisting service combined with an ad-blocker that allowed people to easily pay for content; and maybe even its own password manager.

In the meantime, Firefox is a fine browser by itself, and I use it almost exclusively. As a basic browser, it is effectively indistinguishable from Chrome. But I have the comfort of knowing that my personal information is protected (to the extent possible) – and also that my portal to the web is not custom-built to track me and serve me ads. It’s still an open question whether personal preferences like this, to make individual choices for greater control over one’s internet experience, are realistic with the modern web. Time will tell. But it’s companies like Mozilla that will likely decide it.

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