Imagining a Single-Browser Web


It is often said that competition brings out the best in all of us. Whether we’re running in a race or building software, knowing that others are out there doing the same thing pushes us to do more. It’s the place where progress and innovation come from.

However, a quick look at the web browser market these days will show one clear winner – with everyone else just hoping to make a dent.

As of this writing, Google’s Chrome browser holds over 64% of market share. From there, it’s Apple’s Safari a distant second (16%), along with Firefox (5%) and (gasp) Internet Explorer (4%). And with Microsoft’s Edge (under 2%) soon switching to the Chromium engine, Google is picking up even more steam.

Should these numbers continue to hold over the long term, it would seem that many of these competitors will become a footnote to history. Thus, Google’s supremacy will go pretty much unchallenged. So, what effect would that have on web designers?

Where Things Stand

Years ago, many were concerned that Microsoft would become the company who ruled all the web. Then, Firefox and Chrome came along and changed that narrative. Suddenly, we went from a browser (Internet Explorer) that had lacked support for some standards (not to mention championing its own proprietary code), to software that really did push the web towards standards compliance.

Both of those new browsers became the default for designers, enabling us to use the latest features. Power users were happy to have real choices that prioritized ease-of-use and speed over the slow, buggy IE.

But, the tables have turned dramatically. Microsoft is but a bit player in the browser market. Firefox has been innovative, but struggles as it does not have the monolithic reach of Google. Safari hangs on, mainly due to it being the default option for iPhone users. In fact, Safari has about 26% of the market on mobile, while running on just under 4% of desktops.

Those numbers are in line with the mobile OS market, as iOS retains about 28% of users, while Android (on which Chrome is usually the default browser) takes a whopping 70%.

This tells us that mobile users tend to stick with their default option. And, if you don’t have a widely-used mobile OS of your own (which Microsoft and Firefox’s Mozilla don’t), you’re going to be seriously behind the top dogs.

Android OS mascot.

One Company Sets the Agenda

It’s no secret that, increasingly, Google sets the direction of the web. We’ve seen this for years with search, but the dominance of Chrome allows it to further its interests even more.

This isn’t to suggest that Chrome is any way a bad product, or that Google hasn’t done some very positive things. But, just as the aforementioned concerns with Microsoft, having one company essentially in charge of where web browsers are headed isn’t ideal. Not for a truly “open” web.

And, much like Microsoft tried to do with IE (and was later in trouble with the US government for), Google (and to a lesser extent, Apple) have tied in the browser with an OS. Sure, you do have the option to install something else. However, this *could* allow for some anti-competitive practices to come out.

Beyond that, for web designers this one-way street means that we have to build sites in a way that pleases a single entity (not that we don’t already) and must change directions as we’re told (again, we’re kind of already there). When one company is the far-and-away leader, they dictate and we listen.

A line of people dressed identically.

Sure, It’s Easier – But…

On the bright side, we could view this as having only one piece of software to seriously worry about. To many designers, this might be less stressful than having to deal with a half-dozen browsers, each with their own bugs and quirks.

Just think of the time we could save on browser testing. We could say, “Hey, it works on Chrome – good enough for me!” And this would also enable us to implement cutting-edge features like CSS Grid, without having to deal with fallbacks for older browsers. Good deal, right?

Well, it could be a good deal, so long as the market leader decides to play along. What if, for instance, they really don’t want to support a new HTML or CSS standard? What if they have a falling out with a CMS such as WordPress and, all of the sudden, sites built with it don’t run so well?

Maybe these are far-fetched scenarios. Still, they’re not impossible. All of it really depends on the good behavior of that entity. While it would certainly benefit a company like Google to show restraint, there is always that chance of a company taking things a little too far.

The question is: If they do go too far, will users run the other way towards another browser? And, will there even be a viable alternative for them to run to?

Google Chrome logo.

Are We Already There?

Statistically speaking, Chrome is undoubtedly dominating the market. And with Google already so much a part of our daily lives (and livelihoods), it would be difficult not to feel the sway of their every decision. For all intents and purposes, it sure does feel like a single-browser universe.

Yet, there is also some reason to think that another “browser war” could be on the horizon. The latest versions of Firefox, while still low on market share, are a highly-competitive product. If it retains quality, there is a chance for growth. And, as long as Apple retains a major slice of mobile users, Safari isn’t going away.

Then there is the possibility of regulation. Google is under the wary eye of many a legislative body, and policy changes could have a profound impact the future of its products.

Last but not least, there is the fickle nature of consumers. Virtually nothing stays on top forever, and people are quick to move to something they like better. If Chrome (or Android) stagnates, a significant number of users could look elsewhere.

And perhaps that’s the bottom line. Use the product you like, whether or not it came with your device. The web may just depend on it.

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