Microsoft is officially giving up on an independent shared platform for the internet. By adopting Chromium, Microsoft hands over control of even more of online life to Google.
This may sound melodramatic, but it’s not. The “browser engines” — Chromium from Google and Gecko Quantum from Mozilla — are “inside baseball” pieces of software that actually determine a great deal of what each of us can do online. They determine core capabilities such as which content we as consumers can see, how secure we are when we watch content, and how much control we have over what websites and services can do to us. Microsoft’s decision gives Google more ability to single-handedly decide what possibilities are available to each one of us.
From a business point of view Microsoft’s decision may well make sense. Google is so close to almost complete control of the infrastructure of our online lives that it may not be profitable to continue to fight this. The interests of Microsoft’s shareholders may well be served by giving up on the freedom and choice that the internet once offered us. Google is a fierce competitor with highly talented employees and a monopolistic hold on unique assets. Google’s dominance across search, advertising, smartphones, and data capture creates a vastly tilted playing field that works against the rest of us.
From a social, civic and individual empowerment perspective ceding control of fundamental online infrastructure to a single company is terrible. This is why Mozilla exists. We compete with Google not because it’s a good business opportunity. We compete with Google because the health of the internet and online life depend on competition and choice. They depend on consumers being able to decide we want something better and to take action.
Will Microsoft’s decision make it harder for Firefox to prosper? It could. Making Google more powerful is risky on many fronts. And a big part of the answer depends on what the web developers and businesses who create services and websites do. If one product like Chromium has enough market share, then it becomes easier for web developers and businesses to decide not to worry if their services and sites work with anything other than Chromium. That’s what happened when Microsoft had a monopoly on browsers in the early 2000s before Firefox was released. And it could happen again.
If you care about what’s happening with online life today, take another look at Firefox. It’s radically better than it was 18 months ago — Firefox once again holds its own when it comes to speed and performance. Try Firefox as your default browser for a week and then decide. Making Firefox stronger won’t solve all the problems of online life — browsers are only one part of the equation. But if you find Firefox is a good product for you, then your use makes Firefox stronger. Your use helps web developers and businesses think beyond Chrome. And this helps Firefox and Mozilla make overall life on the internet better — more choice, more security options, more competition.
Scathing but well-deserved dig at Microsoft by Mozilla, following on from the Edge-switch-to-Chromium I’ve been going on about. Chris is right: more people should try Firefox (it’s been my general-purpose browser on desktop and mobile ever since Opera threw in the towel and joined the Chromium hivemind in 2013, and on-and-off plenty before then) – not just because it’s a great browser (and it is!) but also now because it’s important for the diversity and health of the Web.
We used to have much more diversity in terms of browser engines years ago than we do today. This is easy to understand as the Web in 2018 is far more complex than it was in the early noughties. It is very costly to develop and maintain a Web engine and few companies have the necessary talent and cash to do it. Microsoft is one of those companies but the fact that it might be throwing in the towel on its engine signals a bad development for all of us.
Further evaluation of the dangers of the disappearing diversity on the Web, following in the theme of my thoughts the other day about Microsoft’s adoption of Chromium instead of EdgeHTML in its browser.
Andre raises a real point: how will we fight for a private and decentralised Web when it becomes “the Google Web”?
I don’t think Microsoft using Chromium is the end of the world, but it is another step down a slippery slope. It’s one more way of bolstering the influence Google currently has on the web.
We need Google to keep pushing the web forward. But it’s critical that we have other voices, with different viewpoints, to maintain some sense of balance. Monocultures don’t benefit anyone.
This essay follows-up nicely on my concerns about Microsoft’s move from EdgeHTML to Chromium in Edge, but goes further to discuss some of the bigger problems of a homogeneous web, especially one under Google’s influence.
The younger generation of web developers are likely to hail this as good news: one fewer engine to develop for and test in, they’re all already using Chrome or something similar (and certainly not Edge) for development and debugging anyway, etc. The problem comes perhaps because they’re too young to remember the First Browser War and its aftermath. Let me summarise:
Once upon a time – let’s call it the mid-1990s – there were several web browsers: Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer, Opera, etc. They all used different rendering engines and so development was sometimes a bit of a pain, but only if you wanted to use the latest most cutting-edge features: if you were happy with the standard, established features of the Web then your site would work anywhere, as has always been the case.
Then, everybody starting using just one browser: following some shady dealings and monopoly abuse, 90%+ of Web users started using just one web browser, Internet Explorer. By the time anybody took notice, their rivals had been economically crippled beyond any reasonable chance of recovery, but the worst had yet to come…
Developers started targeting only that one browser: instead of making websites, developers started making “Internet Explorer sites” which were only tested in that one browser or, worse yet, only worked at all in that browser, actively undermining the Web’s position as an open platform. As the grip of the monopoly grew tighter, technological innovation was centred around this single platform, leading to decade-long knock-on effects.
The Web ceased to grow new features: from the release of Internet Explorer 6 there were no significant developments in the technology of the Web for many years. The lack of competition pushed us into a period of stagnation. A decade and a half later, we’re only just (finally) finishing shaking off this unpleasant bit of our history.
History looks set to repeat itself. Substitute Chrome in place of Internet Explorer and update the references to other web browsers and the steps above could be our future history, too. Right now, we’re somewhere in or around step #2 – Chrome is the dominant browser – and we’re starting to see the beginnings of step #3: more and more “Chrome only” sites. More-alarmingly this time around, Google’s position in providing many major Web services allows them to “push” even harder for this kind of change, even just subtly: if you make the switch from Chrome to e.g. Firefox (and you absolutely should) you might find that YouTube runs slower for you because YouTube’s (Google) engineers favour Google’s web browser.
So these are the three browser engines we have: WebKit/Blink, Gecko, and EdgeHTML. We are unlikely to get any brand new bloodlines in the foreseeable future. This is it.
If we lose one of those browser engines, we lose its lineage, every permutation of that engine that would follow, and the unique takes on the Web it could allow for.
And it’s not likely to be replaced.
Imagine a planet populated only by hummingbirds, dolphins, and horses. Say all the dolphins died out. In the far, far future, hummingbirds or horses could evolve into something that could swim in the ocean like a dolphin. Indeed, ichthyosaurs in the era of dinosaurs looked much like dolphins. But that creature would be very different from a true dolphin: even ichthyosaurs never developed echolocation. We would wait a very long time (possibly forever) for a bloodline to evolve the traits we already have present in other bloodlines today. So, why is it ok to stand by or even encourage the extinction of one of these valuable, unique lineages?
We have already lost one.
We used to have four major rendering engines, but Opera halted development of its own rendering engine Presto before adopting Blink.
Three left. Spend them wisely.
As much as I don’t like having to work-around the quirks in all of the different browsers I test in, daily, it’s way preferable to a return to the dark days of the Web circa most of the first decade of this century. Please help keep browsers diverse: nobody wants to start seeing this shit –
This article is a follow-up to my article “Why Google AMP is a threat to the Open Web”. In the comments of that article I promised I’d soon provide a follow-up, and for reasons I’ll get into, that has not been possible until now – but now I’m finally providing it.
Back in February I wrote an article saying how I believed Google AMP has been imposed on the web by Google as a ‘standard’ for developing fast webpages, and my dismay about that. Google apparently developed this as an internal project without any open collaboration, and avoiding the W3C standardization processes. Google made implementation of Google AMP a requirement to show at the top of the search results for common news searches.
To many of us open web folk, Google’s AMP violated the widely held principle of search engines not putting bias into search results, and/or the principle of web standards (take your pick – it would not be bias if it was a standardized approach that the wider web community had agreed upon).
You know how I feel about AMP. I’m not alone, and others are doing a pretty good job of talking to Google about our concerns. Unfortunately, Google aren’t listening.
Now that Google+ has been shuttered, I should air my dirty laundry on how awful the project and exec team was.
I’m still pissed about the bait and switch they pulled by telling me I’d be working on Chrome, then putting me on this god forsaken piece of shit on day one.
This will be a super slow burn that goes back many years. I’ll continue to add to over the next couple of days. I’ll preface it with a bunch of backstory and explain what I had left behind, which made me more unhappy about the culture I had come into.
I spent most of my early career working for two radical sister non-profit orgs. I was the only designer working on anywhere from 4-5 different products at the same time. All centered around activism and used by millions of people.
It’s how I cut my teeth. Learned to be the designer that I am today. Most importantly, the people I worked for are imho some of the greatest people on the planet. Highly intelligent, empathetic, caring, and true role models for a young me. I adore them.
You might not know who they are, but if you’re reading this then you have definitely seen their work. Maybe OpenCongress, or Miro, or maybe Amara which is Vimeo’s partner transcription service. Definitely Fight for the Future, our internet defenders, which was shortly after me.
I married the love of my life in 2008, started a family, and at some point realized that I simply needed to make a better living. No matter how prolific, non-profits usually can’t provide the type of income that you need for a growing family with huge ambitions.
So as I gained visibility – via @dribbble – I started to field recruiters and consider new opportunities. Mostly little startups. I interviewed at one (Rockmelt) and they passed on me (hi, @iamxande 🤗).
Got an email from Kickstarter (hi, @amotion 🤗). Schlepped to New York and wasted days of time to be passed on by their founders. Then they unfollowed me on twitter. At least I ate some deli. 😂
Then Google reached out. I remember that ”holy shit” moment. “Me!? Are they kidding?? The schmuck who tested out of high school and dropped out of college??” They told me I’d interview to work on Chrome. I was over the moon. I remember Manda tearing up. God I love her.
They gave me a little bit of time for a design exercise. You can see it here in all it’s dated glory: morganallanknutson.com/google/ Click and hold for the overlay. More schlepping from LA and an interview at their silly college-like campus. I was a nervous wreck.
The process felt very haphazard. At one point a front-end dev with a bow-tie grilled me on CSS and asked some super dumb questions. My advocate (a sweetheart named Peter) seemed to be rushing people through, quelling their fears. I still appreciate his belief in me to this day.
I felt like I had done ok. The last two interviews that I failed at were real shots to the heart. I took this one incredibly seriously. I wanted this job so badly. I wanted to prove I was worthy.
Weeks went by and I heard nothing. I accepted the inevitable and started responding to other recruiters. It was ok. I wasn’t joining the big leagues. I could play triple-A ball for longer. As long as I got up to SF where the opportunities were.
I took a gig with a failing news startup (lol) called Ongo (hi, @bethdean 🤗). They got me up here. I guess it was a bit of a Hail Mary for them. In a couple of months I knocked out more work than they could have built in a year with their eng team. Then…
Google got back in touch almost 3-4 months after the interview (who does this??).
I got the job.
To be continued…
If you ever thought that Google+, despite its laudable aims, was rolled out like a shitstorm… image what it must have been like behind the scenes. Actually, image no more – read this thread for a taste of the full horror.
I’ve come to believe that the goal of any good framework should be to make itself unnecessary.
Brian said it explicitly of his PhoneGap project:
The ultimate purpose of PhoneGap is to cease to exist.
That makes total sense, especially if your code is a polyfill—those solutions are temporary by d...
As well as publishers creating AMP versions of their pages in order to appease Google, perhaps they will start to ask “Why can’t our regular pages be this fast?” By showing that there is life beyond big bloated invasive web pages, perhaps the AMP project will work as a demo of what the whole web could be.
Alas, as time has passed, that hope shows no signs of being fulfilled. If anything, I’ve noticed publishers using the existence of their AMP pages as a justification for just letting their “regular” pages put on weight.
In fact, AMP’s evolution has made it a viable solution to build entire websites.
On an episode of the Dev Mode podcast a while back, AMP was a hotly-debated topic. But even those defending AMP were doing so on the understanding that it was more a proof-of-concept than a long-term solution (and also that AMP is just for news stories—something else that Google are keen to change).
But now it’s clear that the Google AMP Project is being marketed more like a framework for the future: a collection of web components that prioritise performance
You all know my feelings on AMP already, I’m sure. As Jeremy points out, our optimistic ideas that these problems might go away as AMP “made itself redundant” are turning out not to be true, and Google continues to abuse its monopoly on search to push its walled-garden further into the mainstream. Read his full article…
There’s a story that young network engineers are sometimes told to help them understand network stacks and/or the OSI model, and it goes something like this:
You overhear a conversation between two scientists on the subject of some topic relevant to thier field of interest. But as you listen more-closely, you realise that the scientists aren’t in the same place at all but are talking to one another over the telephone (presumably on speakerphone, given that you can hear them both, I guess). As you pay more attention still, you realise that it isn’t the scientists on the phone call at all but their translators: each scientist speaks to their translator in the scientist’s own language, and the translators are translating what they say into a neutral language shared with the other translator who translate it into the language spoken by the other scientist. Ultimately, the two scientists are communicating with one another, but they’re doing so via a “stack” at their end which only needs to be conceptually the same as the “stack” at the other end as far up as the step-below-them (the “first link” in their communication, with the translator). Below this point, they’re entrusting the lower protocols (the languages, the telephone system, etc.), in which they have no interest, to handle the nitty-gritty on their behalf.
This kind of delegation to shared intermediary protocols is common in networking and telecommunications. The reason relates to opportunity cost, or – for those of you who are Discworld fans – the Sam Vimes’ “Boots” Theory. Obviously an efficiency could be gained here if all scientists learned a lingua franca, a universal shared second language for their purposes… but most-often, we’re looking for a short-term solution to solve a problem today, and the short-term solution is to find a work-around that fits with what we’ve already got: in the case above, that’s translators who share a common language. For any given pair of people communicating, it’s more-efficient to use a translator, even though solving the global problem might be better accomplished by a universal second language (perhaps Esperanto, for valid if Eurocentric reasons!).
The phenomenon isn’t limited to communications, though. Consider self-driving cars. If you look back to autonomous vehicle designs of the 1950s (because yes, we’ve been talking about how cool self-driving cars would be for a long, long time), they’re distinctly different from the ideas we see today. Futurism of the 1950s focussed on adapting the roads themselves to make them more-suitable for self-driving vehicles, typically by implanting magnets or electronics into the road surface itself or by installing radio beacons alongside highways to allow the car to understand its position and surroundings. The modern approach, on the other hand, sees self-driving cars use LiDAR and/or digital cameras to survey their surroundings and complex computer hardware to interpret the data.
This difference isn’t just a matter of the available technology (although technological developments cetainly inspired the new approach): it’s a fundamentally-different outlook! Early proposals for self-driving cars aimed to overhaul the infrastructure of the road network: a “big solution” on the scale of teaching everybody a shared second language. But nowadays we instead say “let’s leave the roads as they are and teach cars to understand them in the same way that people do.” The “big solution” is too big, too hard, and asking everybody to chip in a little towards outfitting every road with a standardised machine-readable marking is a harder idea to swallow than just asking each person who wants to become an early adopter of self-driving technology to pay a lot to implement a more-complex solution that works on the roads we already have.
This week, Google showed off Duplex, a technology that they claim can perform the same kind of delegated-integration for our existing telephone lives. Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that this is clearly going to be overhyped and focus on the theoretical potential of this technology, which (even if it’s not truly possible today) is probably inevitable as chatbot technology improves: what does this mean for us? Instead of calling up the hairdresser to make an appointment, Google claim, you’ll be able to ask Google Assistant to do it for you. The robot will call the hairdresser and make an appointment on your behalf, presumably being mindful of your availability (which it knows, thanks to your calendar) and travel distance. Effectively, Google Assistant becomes your personal concierge, making all of those boring phone calls so that you don’t have to. Personally, I’d be more than happy to outsource to a computer every time I’ve had to sit in a telephone queue, giving the machine a summary of my query and asking it to start going through a summary of it to the human agent at the other end while I make my way back to the phone. There are obviously ethical considerations here too: I don’t like being hounded by robot callers and so I wouldn’t want to inflict that upon service providers… and I genuinely don’t know if it’s better or worse if they can’t tell whether they’re talking to a machine or not.
But ignoring the technology and the hype and the ethics, there’s still another question that this kind of technology raises for me: what will our society look like when this kind of technology is widely-available? As chatbots become increasingly human-like, smarter, and cheaper, what kinds of ways can we expect to interact with them and with one another? By the time I’m able to ask my digital concierge to order me a pizza (safe in the knowledge that it knows what I like and will ask me if it’s unsure, has my credit card details, and is happy to make decisions about special offers on my behalf where it has a high degree of confidence), we’ll probably already be at a point at which my local takeaway also has a chatbot on-staff, answering queries by Internet and telephone. So in the end, my chatbot will talk to their chatbot… in English… and work it out between the two of them.
Let that sink in for a moment: because we’ve a tendency to solve small problems often rather than big problems rarely and we’ve an affinity for backwards-compatibility, we will probably reach the point within the lifetimes of people alive today that a human might ask a chatbot to call another chatbot: a colossally-inefficient way to exchange information built by installments on that which came before. If you’re still skeptical that the technology could evolve this way, I’d urge you to take a look at how the technologies underpinning the Internet work and you’ll see that this is exactly the kind of evolution we already see in our communications technology: everything gets stacked on top of a popular existing protocol, even if it’s not-quite the right tool for the job, because it makes one fewer problem to solve today.
Hacky solutions on top of hacky solutions work: the most believable thing about Max Headroom’s appearance in Ready Player One (the book, not the film: the latter presumably couldn’t get the rights to the character) as a digital assistant was the versatility of his conversational interface.
By the time we’re talking about a “digital concierge” that knows you better than anyone, there’s no reason that it couldn’t be acting on your behalf in other matters. Perhaps in the future your assistant, imbued with intimate knowledge about your needs and interests and empowered to negotiate on your behalf, will be sent out on virtual “dates” with other people’s assistants! Only if it and the other assistant agree that their owners would probably get along, it’ll suggest that you and the other human meet in the real world. Or you could have your virtual assistant go job-hunting for you, keeping an eye out for positions you might be interested in and applying on your behalf… after contacting the employer to ask the kinds of questions that it anticipates that you’d like to know: about compensation, work/life balance, training and advancement opportunities, or whatever it thinks matter to you.
We quickly find ourselves colliding with ethical questions again, of course: is it okay that those who have access to more-sophisticated digital assistants will have an advantage? Should a robot be required to identify itself as a robot when acting on behalf of a human? I don’t have the answers.
But one thing I think we can say, based on our history of putting hacky solutions atop our existing ways of working and the direction in which digital assistants are headed, is that voice interfaces are going to dominate chatbot development a while… even where the machines end up talking to one another!
Take my childhood neighborhood in rural Illinois. Here the maps are strikingly different, and Apple’s looks empty compared to Google’s:
Similar to what we saw earlier this year at Patricia’s Green in San Francisco, Apple’s parks are missing their green shapes. But perhaps the biggest difference is the building footprints: Google seems to have them all, while Apple doesn’t have any.
Before the year 2014, there were many people using Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Today, there are still many people using services from those three tech giants (respectively, GOOG, FB, AMZN). Not much has changed, and quite literally the user interface and features on those sites has remained mostly untouched. However, the underlying dynamics of power on the Web have drastically changed, and those three companies are at the center of a fundamental transformation of the Web.
It looks like nothing changed since 2014, but GOOG and FB now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic.
Internet activity itself hasn’t slowed down. It maintains a steady growth, both in amount of users and amount of websites…
If you’re a web developer and you haven’t come across the Google AMP project yet… then what stone have you been living under? But just in case you have been living under such a stone – or you’re not a web developer – I’ll fill you in. If you believe Google’s elevator pitch, AMP is “…an open-source initiative aiming to make the web better for all… consistently fast, beautiful and high-performing across devices and distribution platforms.”
I believe that AMP is fucking poisonous and that the people who’ve come out against it by saying it’s “controversial” so far don’t go remotely far enough. Let me tell you about why.
Google’s stated plan to favour pages that use AMP creates a publisher’s arms race in which content creators are incentivised to produce content in the (open-source but) Google-controlled AMP format to rank higher in the search results, or at least regain parity, versus their competitors. Ultimately, if everybody supported AMP then – ignoring the speed benefits for mobile users (more on that in a moment) – the only winner is Google. Google, who would then have a walled garden of Facebook-beating proportions around the web. Once Google delivers all of your content, there’s no such thing as a free and open Internet any more.
We need to reject AMP, and we need to reject it hard. Right now, it might be sufficient to stand up to your boss and say “no, implementing AMP on our sites is a bad idea.” But one day, it might mean avoiding the use of AMP entirely (there’ll be browser plugins to help you, don’t worry). And if it means putting up with a slightly-slower mobile web while web developers remain lazy, so be it: that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make to help keep our web free and open. And I hope you will be, too.
Like others, I’m just hoping that Sir Tim will feel the urge to say something about this development soon.
Google has made much of their Accelerated Mobile Pages project as a solution to bloated websites and frustrated users. But could AMP actually be bad news for the web, bad news for news, and part of a trend of news distribution that is bad for society in general?
I didn’t start out as strongly anti-AMP. Providing tools for making websites faster is always great, as is supporting users in developing countries with lighter-weight pages that don’t cost them a month’s wages. It’s totally true that today webpages are in a pretty sorry state…
Sometimes it’s really like we’re living in the future. Exciting new technologies keep appearing, and people just keep… using them as if they’d always been there. If tomorrow we perfected the jetpack, the flying car, and the silver jumpsuit, I’ll bet that nobody would think twice about it.
Recently, I’ve had two occasions to use Google+ Hangouts, and I’ve been incredibly impressed.
The first was at Eurovision Night 2012, which was quite a while ago now. Adam did a particularly spectacular job of putting together some wonderful pre-Eurovision entertainments, which were synched-up between our two houses. Meanwhile, he and I (and Rory and Gareth and occasionally other people) linked up our webcams and spare screens via a Google+ hangout, and… it worked.
It just worked. Now I know that the technology behind this isn’t new: back in 2004, I upgraded the Troma Night set-up in Aberystwyth to add a second webcam to the Troma Night live feed. But that was one-way, and we didn’t do sound (for lack of bandwidth and concerns about accidental piracy of the soundtracks to the movies we were watching, of all things, rather than for any particularly good reason). But it really did “just work”, and we were able to wave at each other and chat to each other and – mostly – just “share in the moment” of enjoying the Eurovision Song Contest together, just like we would have in person when we lived in the same town.
At the weekend, I was originally supposed to be in Lancashire, hanging out with my family, but owing to a series of unfortunate disasters (by the way; I’m walking with a stick right now – but that’s not interesting enough to be worth blogging about), I was stuck in Oxford. Despite torrential rain where I was, Preston was quite sunny, and my family decided to have a barbeque.
I was invited… via Google+. They didn’t have Internet access, so they used a mobile dongle plugged into a laptop. I connected in from my desktop computer and then – later – from my mobile phone. So yes, this was at times a genuine mobile-to-mobile multi-party video conference, and it was simple enough that my mother was able to set it up by herself.
It’s like stepping back in time through videogaming history. And also sideways, into a parallel universe of knights and dragons.
It’s like Google Maps, but in the style of retro top-down, turn-based RPGs. It’s really quite impressive: it’s presumably being generated at least semi-dynamically (as it covers the whole world), but it’s more than a little impressive. It sometimes makes mistakes with rivers – perhaps where their visibility from the air is low – but nonetheless an interesting feat from a technical perspective.