Over the past six months, Google welcomed a new outside developer into the leadership of its Chromium project, the software that powers the similarly named browser. The Alphabet subsidiary is also granting outsiders access to its previously proprietary software development system and allows outside features even when Google doesn't incorporate them into the flagship Chrome browser.
Chromium is open-source software, which means anyone can modify and use it. Even with open-source projects, however, outsiders can have trouble convincing organizers to accept their changes and additions, making it harder to contribute and benefit.
Google took pains to draw attention to the changes at the BlinkOn conference earlier this week. "It's really cool to see so many people and groups with different priorities coming together and finding solutions that not only meet their individual agendas but also advance the common goal of improving the web," said Danyao Wang, a Chrome engineer at Google.
Opening up to outside influence fits into Google's broader strategy for the web. The allied-yet-competing Chromium-based browsers spread Google's web technology, a software foundation for richly interactive web apps as opposed to static web pages and simple forms. Google sees that ability as critical to the future of the web, a vision that stands in stark contrast to Apple's view. The iPhone maker doesn't want web apps to inherit the same capabilities as mobile and desktop apps, a power expansion that threatens its rich iOS ecosystem.
Apple and one of its allies, Mozilla, worry that letting web apps communicate with USB and Bluetooth devices or access PC file systems opens up too many security risks. Google and its allies say web apps are inherently safer than native apps thanks to protective browser sandboxing technology and security forged in an unforgiving environment devoid of app store reviewers checking for malware. Limiting advanced interactivity to native apps will cripple the web's long-term health, they say.
Google, which already accounts for 66% of web usage via Chrome, according to analytics firm StatCounter, has attracted powerful allies. Microsoft, Samsung and Brave are the most prominent companies building Chromium-based browsers. Others include Vivaldi, Opera, Yandex and UC Browser. Microsoft now ships Edge to millions of Windows PCs, Samsung is the top Android phone maker and 20 million people use Brave each month.
Apple didn't respond to a request for comment.
Mozilla, whose Firefox browser rose to prominence by challenging Microsoft's once-dominant Internet Explorer, doesn't like it when one browser gets very powerful. "Firefox is one of the last independent browsers standing, making it more relevant and important now more than ever to an open web," the nonprofit said in a statement. "We are firm believers that it's unhealthy when one implementation becomes the de facto standard and that a diversity of browser engines is important to ensuring that standards are of high quality."
Google opens up Chromium
Expanding governance is the most significant change to the Chromium project. Before the change, Google engineers largely decided whether Chromium would accept or reject major new features. A new nomination process that began earlier this year allows outsiders into the inner circle. Manuel Rego Casanovas of open-source developer firm Igalia joined in March through the process.
"We're looking forward to more representation in the coming year," Alex Russell, who heads Chrome's web standards work, said in a statement.
Chromium project leaders are also accepting features from other companies into Chromium even if they won't be added to Chrome. One example is the StorageAccess interface, a privacy-related project Apple's Safari browser team launched to govern how websites store and access some types of data, said Yoav Weiss, who also spoke at BlinkOn. Allowing non-Chrome features is a deliberate decision to give other developers the ability to design Chromium-based browsers that can achieve their priorities, Google said.
Chromium allies don't have to ship all the web features Google likes. Indeed, Brave strips out some features like WebUSB. However, most of the Chromium code base makes it into the non-Chrome browsers, furthering Google's vision.
Brave Chief Executive Brendan Eich wants Google to go farther in sharing control. "The Chromium playing field and rules still tilt steeply in Google's favor," Eich said. Brave disables Chromium features it views as nonstandard and privacy risks, but Google doesn't accept those changes in Chromium, he said.
Helping developers build Chromium
Google also now lets outsiders use its formerly internal software to build system called Goma that can tap the power of Google's data centers to build Chromium. Ordinarily that can take hours, slowing the pace of iteration for developers eager to experiment with new features. Goma will enable more people to contribute to Chromium, Google said.
The search giant is also inviting outside developers to its internal educational events. Earlier this month, Google replaced its internal Chrome University events, which explain how the browser works, with the first Chromium University. Sixty organizations participated.
The company could go farther and contribute Chromium to a neutral foundation, an approach Google and other companies have taken with earlier open-source projects. The Linux Foundation is responsible for the core of the Linux operating system. Google contributed its Kubernetes data center software to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation in 2015. LLVM, an important software building tool that blossomed under Apple's oversight, is now run by the LLVM Foundation.
Google isn't planning a Chromium Foundation, and outside contributors aren't asking for one, the company said.
Microsoft didn't comment on whether it would like to see a neutral foundation, but did say it's working closely with Chromium team members, "bring the best of Chromium together with the best of Microsoft Edge."
Non-Google Chromium participation increases
The changes are having an effect. Among the hundreds of Chromium contributors, 90 new ones came from Google over the last year but even more came from outside, Weiss said. Microsoft, which converted its Edge browser into a Chromium project over the last two years, is the top outside contributor, accounting for 35 percent of non-Google contributors in 2020. Intel, Igalia, Yandex, Opera, Samsung, LG Electronics and Arm also contribute substantially.
In terms of changes to the code base, Igalia leads the non-Google crowd. Microsoft is "closing that gap quickly," Weiss said. Since November of last year, 161 Microsoft developers made 1,835 changes to Chromium, improving things like battery life, web accessibility for people with issues like vision impairment, WebXR virtual reality and augmented reality abilities, and modernized styling for web controls and forms. Since Microsoft first joined Chromium in December 2018, it's made 4,443 changes.
"Other companies are increasing their investment in Chromium and the web platform, and that is awesome," Weiss said.
Correction, Nov. 20: Chromium has had two other non-Google engineer overseers earlier, but Manuel Rego Casanovas is the first to arrive through a new nomination process.