Microsoft is now adding new features to Google Chrome

Here's what it looks like when rivals start cooperating.

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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Microsoft Edge icon logo

Earlier this month, Microsoft released the first Chromium-based version of Edge for download.

Illustration by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google's Chrome browser will work a little differently when it's time to move tabs around thanks to software Microsoft has contributed to the Chromium project that now underlies both companies' browsers. It's an illustration of the power of open-source software -- and of the increasing influence of Google's browser technology on the web overall.

The change this month, flagged on Reddit on Saturday and spotted by the Verge, governs an Edge feature that lets people transfer a group of browser tabs from one browser window to another. Google liked the idea and it's now headed to Chrome, too.

The tab management feature in Edge lets you right-click on a single tab or a group of tabs you've selected then send them to a new or different Edge browser window. It's useful if you like to group related tabs into a single window.

This collegiality is an example of how open-source collaboration can work. The tab-management update is among more than 1,600 such changes Microsoft has made to Chromium, though you aren't likely to notice most of them directly. That number has now risen to 1,900, Microsoft said Monday.

Microsoft abandoned its own browser engine, EdgeHTML, and for more than a year has been building a new version of its Edge browser instead atop Google's Chromium. Earlier this month, it released the first Chromium-based version of Edge for download, and later this year, it'll start distributing it more broadly through its Windows Update service.

Chromium is controlled by Google, but it's open-source software that anyone can use and modify. Microsoft's decision to embrace Chromium means it got rid of persistent compatibility problems it faced with the old Edge, which sometimes wouldn't work on websites that were designed only to work with Chrome. Microsoft has abundant company: Other companies that build browsers on Chromium include Samsung , Brave, Vivaldi , Opera, Yandex and Baidu.

Microsoft's Edge browser lets you move a single tab or group of tabs to a new browser window, a feature that can be useful for grouping related tabs together.

Microsoft's Edge browser lets you move a single tab or group of tabs to a new browser window, a feature that can be useful for grouping related tabs together.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Upstream and downstream

Those companies are free to make changes to the version of Chromium that Google programmers produce. For example, they typically strip out features that send details to Google about how you use the browser. And they add other features, like technology designed to stop advertisers and web publishers from tracking you online. Each of these different Chromium-based variations are made "downstream" of the main Chromium project.

But these other companies can also contribute their changes "upstream" to Chromium. And if Google accepts the changes, those changes flow back down to any other Chromium-based browser.

That kind of collaboration shows the power of open-source software. Programmers from multiple companies -- even direct rivals like Chrome and Microsoft -- can work together.

It's a remarkable contrast to the proprietary software development approach that once prevailed, especially given that Microsoft was arguably the strongest critic of open-source software. Former CEO Steve Ballmer called open-source software a "cancer," while Windows leader Jim Allchin said it was "an intellectual-property destroyer."

More power to Chrome

But Microsoft's contributions also could help make Chromium a more powerful project than it already is. There are only two major alternative browsers left with their own engines -- Mozilla's Firefox, built on Gecko, and Apple's Safari, built on WebKit. The more the web expects only Chromium-based browsers, the harder it'll be for those alternative browsers to fight the same compatibility battle Edge faced.

In effect, that means Google gets to decide what the web is and is not. Chrome already accounts for 64 percent of browser usage, according to analytics firm StatCounter. Safari remains important on iPhones and iPads . Apple requires third-party browsers to use its WebKit engine under the covers, so WebKit decisions govern what web technologies those browsers support on Apple's mobile devices. But elsewhere, Google's decisions hold powerful influence.

Google has greeted Microsoft's Edge team as collaborators and remains an advocate for the "open web," a term originally coined by browser and web allies who didn't like Microsoft's former dominance with Internet Explorer.

"Chrome has been a champion of the open web since inception and we welcome Microsoft to the community of Chromium contributors," Google said in a statement. "We look forward to working with Microsoft and the web standards community to advance the open web, support user choice and deliver great browsing experiences."

Microsoft didn't address the dominance issue, but believes using a Chromium foundation will free developers up so they can make Edge stand out better with other new features. "We'll contribute when it comes to the web platform, because there we are seeking a rising tide that floats all boats, creating a better web experience for everyone," the company said in a statement.

First published Jan. 27, 12:22 p.m. PT.
Update, 12:49 p.m. PT: Adds details about how the tab moving feature works.

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