Microsoft Browser Shift Has Major Implications for Software and Devices

on December 11, 2018
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Sometimes it’s the news behind the news that’s really important. Such is the case with the recent announcement from Microsoft that they plan to start using the open source software-based Chromium project as a basis for future versions of their Edge browser. 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.

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.

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.