Everything is a Browser

Jun 16, 2021

Chrome might be the most successful project that Google has ever launched after Search. It was so important that the lead PM, a McKinsey alum named Sundar Pichai, would later become the CEO of Google. Chrome isn't just the most popular desktop web browser. The most popular mobile browser. An operating system. The basis of Microsoft's browser. It powers the most popular desktop applications. Everything is a browser.

When I say that Chrome runs everything, it's Chromium that runs everything. Google Chrome is the Google proprietary distribution of the open-source Chromium project (wholly owned by Google). Outsiders can contribute to Chromium, and it has become easier to do so in recent years. It's always challenging to contribute to proprietary, open-source projects. The code might live on their servers (Chromium doesn't use GitHub). The build systems may use proprietary tools (testing costs money). Developers and PMs write design documents internally and then deliver them with minimal discussion.

On the desktop: The Electron project is a cross-platform framework for building desktop applications like Slack, Figma, VSCode, Discord, WhatsApp, Notion, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and Twitch. You can think of Electron applications as Chromium browsers that only run a single application.

At Startups: The next generation of browser startups are all built on Chromium. Brave and Mighty are trying to compete on speed. Brave claims speed by reducing tracking. Mighty streams Chrome remotely from high-powered servers.

An Operating System: Chromium is the central component of ChromeOS. Estimates put ChromeOS at about 5% of desktop and laptop operating systems. However, it's hard to gauge the success of ChromeOS since Google highly subsidizes devices for educational institutions as a delivery platform for Google services.

At Microsoft: Chromium is the basis for Microsoft Edge. Chromium doesn't include features like licensed media codecs (e.g., support for different kinds of videos, photos, music), automatic updates, and error reporting.

Chromium worked. Will Google be pressured to divest more control over the project as outside stakeholders increase? Just last year, Google made changes to let contributors from Microsoft and startups take a more active role in the project. Some features in Chromium don't make it to Google Chrome, and what happens as this divergence increases? More and more of the web runs on Chromium, and the stakes are high.