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Opinion: Microsoft browser shift has major implications for software and devices

By Ivan Franco · 17 replies
Dec 11, 2018
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  1. At a basic level, it’s an important (and surprising) move that seems significant for web developers and those who like to track web standards. For typical end users, though, it seems a bit ho-hum, as it basically involves under-the-hood changes that few people are likely to think much about or even notice.

    However, the long-term implications of the move could lead to some profoundly important changes to the kinds of software we use, the types of devices we buy, the chips that power them, and much more.

    The primary reason for this is that by adopting Chromium as the rendering engine for Edge, Microsoft should finally be able to unleash the full potential of the platform-independent, web-focused, HTML5-style software vision we were promised nearly a decade ago. If you’ll recall, initial assurances around HTML5 said that it was going to enable software that could run consistently within any compatible browser, regardless of the underlying operating system. For software developers, it would finally deliver on Java’s initial promise of “write once, run anywhere.” In other words, we could finally get to a world where everyone could get access to all the best software, regardless of the devices we use and own, and the ability to move our own data and services across these devices would become simple and seamless.

    "...by adopting Chromium as the rendering engine for Edge, Microsoft should finally be able to unleash the full potential of the platform-independent, web-focused, HTML5-style software vision we were promised nearly a decade ago."

    Alas, as with Java, the grandiose visions of what was meant to be, didn’t come to pass. Instead, HTML5-based applications struggled with performance and compatibility issues across platforms and devices. As a result, the potential nirvana of a seamless mesh of computing capabilities surrounding us never came to be, and we continue to struggle with getting everything we own to work together in a simple, straightforward way.

    Of course, some might argue that they prefer the flexibility of choices and unique platform characteristics, despite the challenges of integrating across multiple platforms, application types, etc., and that’s certainly a legitimate point. However, even in the world of consistent software standards, there was never an intention to prevent choice or the ability to customize applications. For example, even though Chromium is also the web rendering engine for Google’s Chrome browser, Microsoft’s plan is to leverage some of the underlying standards and mechanisms in Chromium to create a better, more compatible version of Edge, but not build a clone of Chrome. That may sound subtle, but it’s actually an important point that will allow each of these companies (as well as others who leverage Chromium, such as Amazon) to continue to add their own secret sauce and provide special links to their own services and other offerings.

    By moving the massive base of Windows users (as well as Edge browser users on the Mac, Android, and iOS, because Microsoft announced their intentions to build Chromium-powered browsers for all those platforms as well), the company has single-handedly shifted the balance of web and browser-based standards towards Chromium. This means that application developers can now concentrate more of their efforts on this standard and ensure that a wider range of applications will be available—and work in a consistent fashion—across multiple devices and platforms.

    There are some concerns that this shifts too much power into the hands of a single standard and, some are worried, to Google itself, since it started the Chromium project. However, Chromium is not the same as Chrome (despite the similar name). It’s an open source-based project that anyone can use and add to. With Microsoft’s new support, they’ve ensured that their army of developers, as well as others who have supported the Microsoft ecosystem, will now support Chromium. This, in turn, will dramatically increase the number of developers working on Chromium and, therefore, improve its quality and capabilities (in theory, at least).

    The real-world software implications for this could be profound, especially because Microsoft has promised to embed Chromium support into Windows. What this will do is allow web-based applications access to things like the file system, being able to work offline, touch support, and other core system functions that have previously prevented browser-based apps from truly competing against stand-alone apps. This concept, also known as progressive web apps (PWA), is seen as being critical in redefining how apps are created, distributed, and used.

    For consumers, this means the need to worry about OS-specific mobile apps or desktop applications could go away. Developers would have the freedom to write applications that have all the capabilities of a stand-alone app, yet can be run through a browser and, most importantly, can run across virtually any device. Software choices should go up dramatically, and the ability to have multiple applications and services work together—even across platforms and devices—should be significantly easier as well.

    For enterprise software developers, this should open the floodgates of cloud-based applications even further. It should also help companies move away from dependencies on legacy applications and early Internet Explorer-based custom enterprise applications. From traditional enterprise software vendors like SAP, Oracle, and IBM through modern cloud-based players like Salesforce, Slack, and Workday, the ability to focus more of their efforts on a single target platform should open up a wealth of innovation and reduce difficult cross-platform testing efforts.

    "...it’s not just the software world that’s going to be impacted by this decision. Semiconductors and the types of devices that we may start to use could be affected as well."

    But it’s not just the software world that’s going to be impacted by this decision. Semiconductors and the types of devices that we may start to use could be affected as well. For example, Microsoft is leveraging this shift to Chromium as part of an effort to bring broader software compatibility to Arm-based CPUs, particularly the Windows on Snapdragon offerings from Qualcomm, like the brand-new Snapdragon 8cx. By working on bringing the underlying compatibility of Chromium to Windows-focused Arm64 processors, Microsoft is going to make it significantly easier for software developers to create applications that run on these devices. This would remove the last significant hurdle that has kept these devices from reaching mainstream buyers in the consumer and enterprise world, and it could turn them into serious contenders versus traditional X86-based CPUs from Intel and AMD.

    On the device side, this move also opens up the possibility for a wider variety of form factors and for more ambient computing types of services. By essentially enabling a single, consistent target platform that could leverage the essential input characteristics of desktop devices (mice and keyboards), mobile devices (touch), and voice-based interfaces, Microsoft is laying the groundwork for a potentially fascinating computing future. Imagine, for example, a foldable multi-screen device that offers something like a traditional Android front screen, then unfolds to a larger Windows (or Android)-based device that can leverage the exact same applications and data, but with subtle UI enhancements optimized for each environment. Or, think about a variety of different connected smart screens that allow you to easily jump from device to device but still leverage the same applications. The possibilities are endless.

    Strategically, the move is a fascinating one for Microsoft. On one hand, it suggests a closer tie to Google, much like the built-in support for Android-based phones did in the latest version of Windows 10. However, it’s specifically being done through open source, and is likely to leverage its recent Github developer resource purchase to make web standards more open and less specifically tied to Google. At the same time, because Apple doesn’t currently support Chromium and is still focused on keeping its developers (and end users) more tightly tied into its proprietary OS, Microsoft is essentially further isolating Apple from key web software standards. In an olive branch move to Apple users, however, Microsoft has said that they will bring the Chromium-powered version of Edge to MacOS and likely iOS, essentially giving Apple users access to this new world of software, but via a Microsoft connection.

    In the end, a large number of pieces have to come together in order to make this web-based, platform-free version of the software world come to pass, and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see roadblocks arise along the way. Still, Microsoft’s move to support Chromium could prove to be a watershed moment that quietly, but importantly, sets some key future technology trends into motion.

    Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm. You can follow him on Twitter . This article was originally published on Tech.pinions.

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    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 11, 2018
  2. BSim500

    BSim500 TS Evangelist Posts: 607   +1,222

    Good God, that is literally the LAST thing anyone wants. Web Browsers should exist as separate apps precisely to act as a "sandbox buffer" for security reasons (eg, if you're running a whitelist Firewall (block by default, allow by exception), then adding one allow rule for one browser makes it easier to secure). Raise direct net access + scripting to Windows 10 level (which operates above the Firewall), and the system is wide open to every script imaginable with direct access to the file system... W10 is fast going from being a nosy, unstable PITA control-freak into a "full-on world's largest Malware hosting service".
    Reehahs, Darth Shiv, Danny101 and 5 others like this.
  3. psycros

    psycros TS Evangelist Posts: 2,714   +2,513

    Some very good points here. There's a serous danger of returning to the bad ol' days when IE was dominant, mostly due to its subverting of web standards. It was a golden age for malware writers. I sincerely hope that reviving that model this isn't Microsoft's primary goal, because if so they are digging their own grave. Nobody wants or needs a proprietary web..we've been down that road and it was ugly.
    Theinsanegamer and Evernessince like this.
  4. cliffordcooley

    cliffordcooley TS Guardian Fighter Posts: 11,389   +5,016

    I don't think that is possible. There will still be a divide between Google and Microsoft.
  5. Evernessince

    Evernessince TS Evangelist Posts: 3,999   +3,483

    Agreed. Hopefully the EU has something to say about chromium support being part of the windows OS. Not only for the security concerns but monopoly concerns. They were already forced once to give users a browser choice in the EU.

    Google already dictates so much on the web and they wield such massive power over it.
  6. jobeard

    jobeard TS Ambassador Posts: 12,886   +1,530

    Fair for the goose -- Windows resistance to anything not branded M$ -- will now be seen by Mac OS X, iOS at lease and likely Linux too, these users are happy with what they have and see no advantage to moving to Edge.

    Web code (web server) that runs in Safari (the native Mac browser) runs just as well in Firefox, Chrome, and several other browsers, and for a purest -- OMG why contaminate Mac with anything branded M$?
  7. Darth Shiv

    Darth Shiv TS Evangelist Posts: 1,963   +577

    I personally am shocked that Edge has a market. I thought it was just the program you used to download a real browser???
  8. TheNetAvenger

    TheNetAvenger TS Rookie Posts: 18   +6

    No, No, No...

    EDGE, as MS clearly states, will now be separated from the OS and the OS browser engine.

    As for the weird rant about 'security' and lack of isolation...

    You seem to forget that Browser sandbox isolation was first created by Microsoft with IE7, which ironically Microsoft gave to Google for Chromium, as Chrome's isolation model today still looks much like IE7. Even with IE's engine and EdgeHTML's engine included in Windows - they are still MORE isolated and secure than Chrome running on Windows. (There are security numbers that demonstrate this, even though it is not commonly known and people think Chrome is more secure when it simply is not.)

    (This security shift is also not new, from IE9 forward, Chrome has been a bigger security risk and one of the top 5 leading ways malware enters a system, even scoring worse than Flash and Java a couple of years. These are not 'socially engineered' exploits either, they are failings in Chrome's isolation/sandbox model.)

    Anyway, the point is...
    Edge with Chromium will be separate from Windows, and exist outside of the OS.

    Even if Microsoft brings Chromium into UWP, Edge will continue to use its own independent engine.

    This is detailed by Microsoft, and specifically addresses that Edge will now be separate of the OS HTML engine, which they made a lot of effort to state to prevent people from having any misconceptions.

    They also go through their other reasons to keep Edge separate. Things like cross platform, and specifically talking about an Edge release for OS X along with the exist Edge on Android now that is Chromium based.

    Another reason is allow Edge to not be held back by OS and shared App framework updates, so Edge can be updated as fast as necessary. (Right now the EdgeHTML engine is a part of UWP on .NET Core, major changes affect Apps and software that also use this engine that are not Edge, so this requires full framework level testing for any feature changes or updates.)

    Edge now becomes a separate Application, which is a first, as IE never was, nor was Edge previously.

    This also helps Chromium, as Microsoft can fix and move forward the model to work more like IE9+ and EdgeHTML does now. Chromium's model is closer to IE8 than it is to IE9-11 or EdgeHTML, and this is why Edge is significantly lighter and faster. This is really good for Chromium, as it can get all really good technologies from Microsoft EdgeHTML that ARE BETTER than how it works now. (Even if nobody but Microsoft uses these changes, at least they will be available to everyone.)

    Unlike Chrome, Microsoft will also be able to avoid getting stuck with older OS frameworks and libraries.

    When Microsoft shows Edge using less CPU and battery while playing a video and the ability to provide 4K streaming content from sites, where Chrome is limited to 1080p or 720p - this is because Edge uses the newest media technologies in Windows that provide a lot more performance and a secured path for high resolution content. The same will be true for OS X, as Chrome doesn't use the fastest media or GPU or rendering technologies on it either.
    Reehahs likes this.
  9. Dimitrios

    Dimitrios TS Guru Posts: 466   +348

    I use to like Microsoft but once Bill Gates left I knew the company would go down hill and also act more like APPLE. I thought this day would never come but I seriously hate them and if it wasn't for DIRECTX and pc gaming I would drop them.
  10. TheNetAvenger

    TheNetAvenger TS Rookie Posts: 18   +6

    No, read my post above. This is not an accurate statement in this context. You are also skipping over the entire set of sandbox and isolation technologies Microsoft and Windows already provide and Edge and UWP use on top of these.

    Edge now can 'touch' the FS, but that doesn't mean it gets a security token to touch anything but its own virtualized content without the user clicking on a file or folder and creating a new temporary security token to touch that part of the FS.

    Windows 10 adds in several new generational shifts of additional sandbox technologies like Application Guard, and new technologies that are framework independent.

    Browser isolation and sandboxing came from Microsoft and started with IE7, which Google used for Chrome and still uses a variation of the IE7 isolation technologies. Microsoft moved on with IE9-Edge to newer and better models, and they have been highly effective. IE9+ or Edge are not security weaknesses, installing Chrome reduces an end user's security and protection significantly.

    Besides, wouldn't it be fun to have a Chromium browser by a major company that actually fights for user protections and privacy rights?

    Chrome to this day dumps around 2GB of data back to Google per week, on top of what they get through Google searches. This reporting uses IP masking and hopping to avoid it being blocked, and even if it is successfully blocked from direct reporting, the first site Chrome hits that uses Google Analytics, a relay is setup and the data is handed to Google.

    (And why people think this is ok and put up with it is insane. People were 'crazed' about Windows 10 'SmartScreen' doing anonymous checks on site legitimacy, technically a good thing. Ironically, while they were screaming about Windows 10, these same users are using Chrome and handing huge amounts of personal data to Google without question. -And this doesn't even scratch the data from their Android phones, including location tracking even when it is fully disabled by the user.)
  11. BSim500

    BSim500 TS Evangelist Posts: 607   +1,222

    There are many things I haven't forgotten such as MS's prior disastrous "Active Desktop" whose security issues were known about in the 90's and yet it was still included all the way through to XP / Server 2003 to the 90's web development hell where web site developers had to code their site twice over - once for IE6-8 and once for everyone else who actually respected the HTML open standard... Fast forward 15 years and now MS are mentally stuck on trying to force Windows (production environment) to act exactly like mobile Android (pure consumption environment) without figuring out why people have different expectations of security / privacy for different devices designed for different tasks for fairly obvious reasons. "Edge = Glorious Golden Age of web-app portability" or just "Embrace, Extend, Extinguish 2.0"? Time will tell...

    Thanks for the Edge infomercial, but as is described in the "How it Works" section of the Netflix 1080p Chrome extension, those Edge-or-720p Netflix resolution restrictions for non-Edge browsers are entirely fake and easily worked around. Netflix at +1080p on Chrome even works on W7 further rubbing salt into the "oh but you must use Edge or you'll see 720p" wound. Isn't it funny how increased compatibility of the most popular video streaming service in the most popular browsers for the most popular resolution turns out to be what most people living in the real world want in practise more than yet more Edge-specific artificial lock-downs?... ;-)
  12. fktech

    fktech TS Maniac Posts: 526   +138

    How to squeeze more money out of the consumer!!!
  13. fktech

    fktech TS Maniac Posts: 526   +138

    Edge sucks!
  14. slamscaper

    slamscaper TS Addict Posts: 247   +68

    I thought this was a strange move by Microsoft as well. I mean Chromium might be the best overall engine but for them to just give Google even more of a boost makes no sense from a business standpoint. Mozilla's latest Firefox versions are very good so they should have chose to use Gecko instead. It is open source and has a crazy number of add-ons that support it.
  15. Cubi Dorf

    Cubi Dorf TS Booster Posts: 145   +51

    There is already webkit based Edge for iOS. Apples only allow webkit browser on ios.
  16. Dimitrios

    Dimitrios TS Guru Posts: 466   +348

    What scares me is the day some Greedy company finds a way to end FIREFOX or it's Ad blocker. I'm 35 now and left the TV part of my life out the last 5-8 years. It was tough but it's so much better. Why pay for cable when 30%-50% is spent on watching commercials? Also TV channels are full of garbage.

    It's a matter of time before these greedy companies come in and ruin our internet filled with restrictions, ads (just a modern term for commercials so to speak) & force feed doctored news spitting out whatever their agenda is.
    cliffordcooley likes this.
  17. Theinsanegamer

    Theinsanegamer TS Evangelist Posts: 1,547   +1,767

    The answer is simple, stop consuming content from big media companies. They cant end firefox or ad blockers, the legal challenge to try that would be insurmountable to anybody other then the likes of google, and while google would love to do that, it would open itself up to so much backlash and counterlawsuits it wouldnt be worth it.
  18. koblongata

    koblongata TS Addict Posts: 203   +59

    WebAssembly will have bigger implications, as it will finally enable real games real applications inside of a browser across platforms, I believe MS already have some plans for it, just hope it's not to break it for strategic reasons.

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