Earlier this week, a former intern working on Microsoft Edge alleged that Google had deliberately broken YouTube to disadvantage Microsoft’s browser in competitive battery life tests. Chrome has become the dominant browser; Chrome and Chromium will now account for a massive 80 percent of the desktop browser market. Firefox, the only actively maintained, cross-platform competitor, currently accounts for about 9 percent of the space. Browsers like Safari, with its macOS limitation, accounts for roughly 5 percent. The rest is scraps and pieces, like the now-discontinued-but-still-shambling Internet Explorer.
Google has now denied the accusation that it took any action to disadvantage Edge and is claiming that this problem was simply the result of a bug. The Verge spoke to YouTube, which denies the allegations. “YouTube does not add code designed to defeat optimizations in other browsers, and works quickly to fix bugs when they’re discovered,” says a YouTube spokesperson in a statement to The Verge. “We regularly engage with other browser vendors through standards bodies, the Web Platform Tests project, the open-source Chromium project and more to improve browser interoperability.”
Let’s be honest about this, however. Yes, it’s absolutely possible that the performance or battery life regressions that hit Edge were caused by a bug, not a deliberate attempt to engineer a performance advantage for Google. But this would be far from the first time that an advantageous bug was allowed to persist for longer than it might have otherwise. And Google has been accused of these shenanigans by Firefox as well, which noted in July that Google had decided to implement a redesign of YouTube that relied on a deprecated API version only used in Chrome to start with.
YouTube page load is 5x slower in Firefox and Edge than in Chrome because YouTube's Polymer redesign relies on the deprecated Shadow DOM v0 API only implemented in Chrome. You can restore YouTube's faster pre-Polymer design with this Firefox extension: https://t.co/F5uEn3iMLR
— Chris Peterson (@cpeterso) July 24, 2018
Google, in other words, has every reason to paint these issues as bugs, or products of imperfect communication between teams, or even strategic decisions made to boost the performance of its own browser rather than actions that could negatively impact the performance of products built by other companies. Saying anything else invites scrutiny by lawmakers at a time when Google and other tech companies are already facing increasing questions over their power.
But even if we take Google at its word, the situation still highlights the uncomfortable degree to which companies can create advantageous situations for themselves. Google has every right to optimize its own browser to work well with YouTube and to design YouTube to work well with its browser — but by relying on deprecated standards (or, in theory, specialized, Google-specific extensions/versions), the company also creates a scenario in which its competitors either have to add equivalent support or constantly adjust their own approaches to keep pace with whatever Google is doing. There’s an intrinsic advantage baked-in to being the dominant market player that exists regardless of how one feels about the company in question. And the defense that Google would use for these arrangements isn’t really any different than what Microsoft would have said during the Bad Old Days of IE6: If companies are optimizing for IE6 because IE6 is the browser everyone uses, who is actually being harmed?
But this is a bad argument, not least because we’re still trying to pry IE6 and its ill-gotten spawn out of networks worldwide. Bad browsers don’t just fade away. Standards that are compromised or written to account for browser weaknesses often continue to carry those vulnerabilities for decades. A 2015 exploit, Logjam, existed because of weak encryption standards required by the US government in the 1990s. Granted, this is a security flaw and rather different from the type of performance issue raised by the ex-Microsoft intern and Mozilla earlier this year, but the principle is the same. Design decisions can have impacts far beyond their supposed reach.
Right now, there’s only one real way for an average person to try and make a difference to Chrome’s overall browser domination: Use Firefox. At the very least, I’d give it a shot. Post-Quantum, it’s been a remarkably good browser. Opinions and experiences being what they are, plenty of people will obviously disagree — Firefox’s share of the browser market fell to as small as it is today for a variety of reasons, and reversing that isn’t particularly easy. But there is, at least, one alternative to Chrome if you’re concerned about handing too much market power to any single company, regardless of which firm it is.
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