Google recently announced that they would be removing support for Google services from Chromium. What does this change mean for you and what could it mean for the future of a free web? Join us to find out.

What Happened?

Google recently discovered that some browsers based on the Chromium open-source project were making use of features that were “supposed” to only be available on Google Chrome. These features include “Chrome sync and Click to Call”. Essentially, users of some Chromium-based browsers could access their bookmarks, passwords, and sync data tied to their Google account.

As a result, Google announced that they would be limiting access to the necessary Chrome APIs starting on March 15, 2021.

Developers can still get access to these APIs. However, Google will limit the quota they can use to make sure the APIs are not used in production.

Linux Distros Scramble to Respond

The news of Google’s move has left Linux devs wondering whether or not they should continue to carry Chromium in their repos.

Canonical currently only offers Chromium as a snap to make it easier to ship updates for all of the operating system versions that they support. They have not decided whether to support the neutered Chromium or not. On the other hand, Linux Mint has decided to stick with Chromium.

The Arch devs decided to keep Chromium even after the March 15th deadline. The Fedora will also keep Chromium in their repos but will remove the offending APIs effective immediately. Slackware has announced that they will no longer be supporting what they consider a crippled browser.

Google Trying to Regain Market Share?

Google is framing this change as an attempt to limit third-party access to Google services. However, this could very well be the first step in Google locking down its browser platform.

At this moment, Google Chrome is responsible for over 60% of browser usage. (The exact number differs based on what graph you look at.) If you look at the numbers, Chromium-based browsers like Edge, Brave, Opera, and Vivaldi are starting to eat into Chrome’s number. Take Microsoft Edge for example. The first preview builds were released in April of 2020. By October of that year, it had reached 10% market share and pushed Firefox to number 3. (Part of that market share, undoubtedly was caused by Microsoft pushing an update to replace Internet Explorer 11 and Edge Legacy with the new Chromium-based version.) If we learned one thing through the years, it’s that Google likes to dominate.

While it’s true that most of Google’s browser competitors use their own servers to store user bookmarks and passwords, they still use the same extensions as Chrome. For many people, it’s important to have access to certain extensions for work or fun. To borrow a familiar metaphor, the browser is the platform and the extensions are the applications that the user needs or wants to use.

What would happen to these Chromium-based browsers if Google blocked their access to the Google Chrome Store? Without access to their familiar tools, would they stay with Brave or Edge? I think many would switch back to Chrome because people tend to choose the path of least resistance.

The inherent problem with creating a new browser/platform is getting people to create addons/extensions for it. Case in point: before Microsoft switched to Chromium, it only had a few add-ons available. The majority of browser extensions are created by people as a hobby and maintaining two or more codebases seems more like a job than a hobby. The bottom line is that people would be less likely to create extensions, thus reducing the usability of the browser and leading to a loss of market share.

If you don’t think Google could do this, think again. Google has an iron grip on the Chromium project. As Steven Vaughan-Nichols points out “whatever Google wants to do with Chromium, Google can do it and it doesn’t matter what anyone else wants. This is not how open source is supposed to work. I think it’s time for all those Chromium developers out there to have a serious talk with Google. The vast majority of open-source projects don’t have a single company calling all the shots. Why should Chromium?”

Google Only Supports Open Source when It Benefits Them

Keep in mind that Google has a history of using open source to gain market share and then abandoning it. Android is the biggest example. From the beginning of its time with Google, Android was touted as THE open-source phone operating system. The Android Open Source Project was used by several projects to create their own version of Android. This helped make Android popular.

Then at a certain point, Google introduced an app called Google Play Services. This app is not open source and contains all of the stuff you need to access Google’s services. I’m sure that there is a workaround, but most people don’t want the added responsibility of tinkering with their phone to get it to work. (There is a minority who enjoys doing that and you know who you are.)

Another example is the Metastream saga. Back in 2019, a guy named Samuel Maddock created a side project named Metastream. It was going to be an Electron-based browser that would allow users across the web to watch videos at the same time. The videos would be synced up so that the users would enjoy the experience together. The only problem was that Samuel needed access to a DRM provider so that his users could watch videos on services like Netflix or Hulu.

For Electron/Chromium-based browsers, there is only one option Google Widevine. So, Samuel attempted to get a license for Widevine. Four months later, he got a response stating that “I’m sorry but we’re not supporting an open source solution like this”. In a follow up post, Samual listed other projects that ran into issues with Widevine and were left in the cold by Google. He also quoted Brian Bondy, Co-founder and CTO of Brave, who said, “This is a prime example for why free as in beer is not enough. Small share browsers are at the mercy of Google, and Google is stalling us for no communicated-to-us reason.” (Samual has since pivoted his Metastream project to be a browser extension, instead of a stand-alone browser.)

Final Thoughts

It’s frustrating to think about how far we have come from the early days of the Internet. Back in the day, we had several different browsers, each with its own rendering engine, competing to see who could add new features the quickest. Each browser you tried had a different look and feel. Now they are a homogeneous mess. When you switch between them, they all feel the same. (Times like this, I miss Opera 12 and Firefox 3.5.)

What can be done to reverse Google’s stranglehold on the browser world? Vaughan-Nichols suggested forking Chromium in his article. It would take a large group of people to handle that task. Maybe That’s a task for Brave. (I don’t want Microsoft or Opera doing it.)

Years ago, I would have recommended Firefox as a good alternative option. However, in the last couple of years, the Mozilla Foundation has been speaking more and more favorably of censorship. This is decidedly against the idea of a free internet that spawned them in the first place. Besides, I’m leery of an organization that receives hundreds of millions of dollars a year from its biggest competitor. After all, if they gain too much market share, they may lose the golden goose.

For now, I’ll continue to use Brave on Linux and watch to see how the situation develops.