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What Is Chromium, and How Close Is It to a Monopoly?

by Margaret Joy

Learn about Google's not-so-secret monopoly in the Internet browser market and why many find it worrisome.

Published: September 8, 2021

For a budding monopoly, Google’s done a good job keeping Chromium under the radar. Most people aware of it are those in the browser development sphere, so it doesn’t often make headlines. 

Chromium is Google’s open-source codebase for browser development. It’s the collection of code used to power a browser—not the browser itself. Chrome is Google’s browser, built on Chromium. We know, it’s confusing. To add another layer, Chromium is often referred to as the browser engine, but it’s actually a collection of open source projects that include Blink, the browser engine used to power Chromium-based browsers.

Who Runs on Chromium?

The last time Chromium really hit the news was in fall 2019, when Microsoft announced it would change its browser, Edge, to a Chromium build, released the following January. And by “hit the news,” we mean tech newsletters and blogs ran articles on it, mostly by developers voicing concerns on Chromium’s growing dominion. With that industry-shaking change, Mozilla Firefox became the last major browser standing—i.e., the only one separate from Google’s project. 

“But what about Safari?” you ask. Excellent question! While technically not a Chromium browser, the Chromium project is actually forked from Apple’s browser engine, WebKit. So they’re essentially the same, at least to those of us who aren’t web developers. Chromium is now behind most major browsers (Chrome, Edge, and Opera) as well as 20-plus lesser-known browsers.

Why Is Chromium’s Dominance Concerning?

There would be a far bigger antitrust outcry if Chromium wasn’t open source. The concept of open-source software means it’s public rather than proprietary, and anyone can add to the project if they so choose. Granted, the overwhelming majority of Chromium development was and is done by Google engineers anyway. So while it’s by no means a traditional monopoly because Google isn’t forcing other browsers out of existence in favor of Chrome, nor do competitor websites and tools run slower on Chromium, it gives Alphabet far more influence than anyone else. 

A couple of groups manage Internet standards and guidelines: The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). You may remember these names from our What is WebRTC? blog, because they handled the discussion over globally accepted standards for communication to make WebRTC work regardless of OS or browser. While both groups are voluntary communities, they still set and manage internationally accepted Internet standards. The point of groups like the IETF and W3C is to keep the Internet an independent and open resource. 

Google already had a very loud voice within these groups, with Chrome controlling more than 60% of the browser market share. Firefox holds 3.45% of the market share. So with the only truly independent browser engine (of the major ones anyway) holding such a tiny slice of the pie, Chromium has a worrying amount of power in the future of the Internet and the options to access it.