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Discussion on: Chromium and the browser monoculture problem

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jmc • Edited on

isn't the W3C already an independent organization

Yes and no. It's a large group of tech companies, both old and new, that pay dues in order to have a say in emerging standards recommendations. It includes the browser vendors. This thread is worth a read.

They did attempt to set their own agenda with XHTML 2 and related work. But it was both too ambitious and too far from the browser vendors' wishes, and it was ignored. We instead got HTML5, which codifies the superset of quirky crap the vendors had added since 4.01, and adds some new tags. It's maintained by WhatWG (i.e. the browser vendors). They don't even bother to version it.

What if Chromium became the basis for a reference implementation of web standards, and all browsers converted to be based on it?

We already have a "reference implementation" model, although Google doesn't call the shots in every case yet.

Some things follow the old process: W3C made the IndexedDB recommendation, and the vendors went to work on it. Even then, there were only a couple of main players: Apple created a SQL solution that got decent support. But Mozilla pushed for a more storage-neutral standard, and ultimately got it.

The browser extension APIs went the other way: Google made a set of APIs for Chrome, then Mozilla began a now-stalled effort to standardize them. Mostly it involved using generic names for things, which Google ignored. Google's now working on "Manifest v3," which among other changes, removes extensions' ability to intercept requests (e.g. μBlock) and run remote code (e.g. Tampermonkey).

Anyway, from what I can tell, the standards mostly get based on, existing or planned implementations. Some are joint efforts, some aren't. But there are only a handful of vendors, and their numbers shrink as browsers become increasingly complicated.

How big of a loss would this be?

I can only speculate, but IMO the trade-off is that the standards take longer but the results tend to be more resilient and better-thought-out.

In the immediate future, it looks like users' ability to selectively request content is about to be neutered. That could mean very little, or it could indicate a shift toward a more broadcast-like web, led by a company that makes the bulk of its money on advertising platforms.

I'm not trying to be smarmy -- I seriously don't know. But I do think the current process, which tends to require consensus from the browser cartel, and occasionally the larger W3C, already represents a balance between caution and practicality, and is better than a fully proprietary web. I also think that the TV marketing adage, "if you're not paying for the product, you are the product" applies here in part.

Worst case, even we end up with a monopoly, I do think that the creativity of end users and startups matter more than the platforms. My hope is that the medium isn't really the message, and that the internet remains a world of ends.

And to that end, I'd invite everyone that's read this far to consider throwing the EFF a few bucks.