For those of you who grew up during the last century, "Internet Explorer" is a name that can you can link to a small blue icon on which you had to double-click to "surf the world wide web", or that makes you remember endless distress hours (I mean it) developing a website able to be displayed on this perfectly demoniac software creation.
For those of you who barely know the name, here is a short history class: in 2000, the web slowly invades personal computers all around the world. To browse the web, a tool is largely used: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. It’s quite easy to use, but it comes with a bad reputation: it’s known to be awful at drawing websites correctly. And it’s not only a reputation. Nobody knows how it works, and creating websites requires hours of testing (and black magic) to get a pretty random rendering.
In 2004, Internet Explorer reaches more than 95% of market share and squishes its challenger of the time, Netscape. At this moment, Microsoft is almighty and doesn’t really work on its browser: Internet Explorer 6 has been released in 2001 and will not evolve during 5 long years, keeping its bugs and its limits. After all, why would they change something that "works", as all the largest websites of the world are already "optimized for Internet Explorer?"
Nothing can possibly happen to Microsoft. Users are captive, even more because it’s really hard to create websites that work correctly on both Internet Explorer and other browsers. But…
However, in only 6 years, this share market will unavoidably drop under 50%, because of two valorous competitors: first Firefox, then Chrome. The browsers try to live together as best as they can, and even if the challenge is complex it is still possible thanks to one huge detail: standards.
The W3C is a consortium whose mission is to define some web standards, like HTML and CSS. Some big companies, including Microsoft, Mozilla, Google and Apple (developing Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Safari) discuss features to add, formats syntaxes and rendering rules of web pages. These standards are free and allow everybody to create interoperable tools.
This interoperability is crucial while developing the web. Many browsers flourish and they’re not alone anymore: a myriad of services use protocols, formats and tools used by the web. All this technology is tested, diverted and improved in a joyful bazaar that is the root of a vast majority of the Internet services used today. This is only possible because these tools use the same languages, and these languages are defined by big actors talking together to define transparent standards.
Standards win. At least they once did.
All Against One, One Against All
Don’t claim victory too early, because the fateful history repeats itself.
The irresistible rise of Internet Explorer wasn’t only due to its performance (cough, cough). Microsoft, by installing its browser on all the computers running Windows, did easily get a large part of users. It then meanly tried to trick its users to keep its monopoly: no way to uninstall Internet Explorer, integration of closed Windows-based technologies, obvious incompatibilities with the other tools…
Today, in 2022, the actors changed but the situation didn’t.
Chrome became an insatiable beast. On computers, it’s over 70% of market share. But there’s more: Opera and Microsoft dropped their own rendering engines and use Chrome’s one instead, transforming Opera and Edge into sad Chrome clones. Together, they probably render more than 85% of the web pages on computers. Only Safari, largely used by iPhone owners (do they have the choice?), is pretty stable with 20% of smartphone users.
Why? Chrome is a good browser, for sure. Google invested a lot of energy, time and money to make Chrome the good tool it is, way better than what Internet Explorer ever was. Everybody agrees on that, but… Maybe the reality is a bit more complex than that.
The Technological Trojan Horse
First of all, as explained in the previous article, Google used a lot of advertisements to praise the merits of its browser. This operation is not technically illegal, but when the browser is advertised for free on the most popular website of the world, it may be seen as an abuse of dominant position.
And there’s more.
Google is very powerful, even when we don’t really see it. Regularly, Google adds new features to Chrome, new features that it created itself. It can take some time to have them specified, in order to remain the bright knight of this fabulous story, but it actually installs its technical superiority by implementing its own technologies quickly in Chrome. Other browsers can only criticize and follow…
After all, why not? These technologies will only become popular if they are good, won’t they? Well… Not exactly. Chrome owns tools that define the "quality" of websites. You don’t want to use what Google thinks is good? Your grade will drop. You didn’t use this feature Google developed? Google will judge your pages negatively.
After all, why not? That’s only a bad grade… That’s true, but when we remember that Google’s opinion on your website will change its rank on the search page, the choice becomes more and more difficult. Will you ignore this technology that’s useless for you, even if it means that you’ll be harder to find on search engines? Will you let your opponents pass you by if they use the wonderful toys created by Google?
After all, why not? You’ll keep your conscience clear. At least if you don’t depend on advertisement revenues from Google, as they will oblige you to fulfill its technological dreams. And if you keep on avoiding other Google tools, like Maps for example. And if you accept some little artificial problems in the layout and the compatibility. And if you accept the unfortunately degraded performances of Google tools on competing browsers. And… The list is endless.
OK. Well… Let’s use questionable technologies, quickly and dirtily developed by Google, it’s not that bad. Let’s develop a website that’s "optimized for Google Chrome."
It’s not bad for you. But it’s becoming to be bad for the people in charge of implementing browsers and web tools. How is it possible to keep up with the fast pace of Google, that has an incredible manpower dedicated to implement the technologies it created and specified? How is it possible to quickly include, in other code bases, features designed to match Google tools’ internals?
By force of circumstances, you turn other browsers into second-class tools.
Yes. Google misuses its dominant position, on purpose or not. Why are they so bad? And are they actually bad? It’s hard to say.
Google is one of the companies that made Internet Explorer fall from its unbeatable position. They were behind a conspiracy to kill IE6. Google openly criticized the hegemonic position of Microsoft, when it only was a challenger. But now that the company is above the other ones, it uses the exact same tricks it was denouncing.
Fun fact: more than 10 years ago Microsoft was afraid that Google would be in a monopoly position.
The problem is not in the companies, that would be good or bad. The problem is in their positions, that gives them the power to enforce their choices, strengthening their positions in an endless loop. This power will lead them to their downfall, one day, in one way or another. But we would highly benefit from not spending years in the darkness until them.
What can we do?
Be patient! We’ll try to find some hope in the next article.