Will Google and Microsoft Own the Web?

It's something of an open secret that Mozilla, the organization behind the open source Firefox Web browser, gets most of its funding from Google -- 91 percent, to be exact. The deal gives Google top placement in Firefox's search engine bar. But now that Google is also shipping Chrome, its own branded browser, some critics are asking whether the search engine giant's deep pockets have allowed it to gain too much influence over the Web browser market.

This week, Mozilla CEO John Lilly admitted that his organization's relationship with Google is "more complicated than it used to be" in light of the current funding arrangement. But Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz goes even further, claiming that because the market is controlled by just a few giant companies -- namely Google and Microsoft -- the Web browser has become "hostile territory" for application developers. Could the days of an open Web be coming to an end?

Chip TaylorThe technologies used to build Web pages -- including HTML, JavaScript, and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) -- are all open standards, maintained by industry consortia. No one company owns them. But experimental features often appear in new browser releases first, then are integrated into the official standards later. One example is Google's Gears technology, which is built into Chrome and is available as a plug-in for Firefox and Internet Explorer. Gears is widely expected to influence the upcoming HTML 5 standard.

That's all well and good, except that arguably only Microsoft can compete with Google's share of the browser market. For example, Opera is a longstanding alternative browser that is often praised for its compliance with Web standards, but its market share is but a fraction of that of Firefox or IE. Because of Opera's narrower reach, a new feature introduced in Opera might be seen as less significant, and therefore be less likely to become part of the public standards.

Sun's Schwartz has good reason to fear a market where large companies wield an undue influence over widely-used technologies. A few years ago, Sun fought a protracted legal battle with Microsoft over the Redmond-based giant's nonstandard implementation of Sun's Java programming language. Sun argued -- successfully -- that Microsoft's actions amounted to an attempted hostile takeover of Java.

Rather than see the same scenario play out on the Web, Schwartz argues that developers should avoid the "hostile territory" altogether. Instead of the browser, he says, developers should build applications using Sun's new JavaFX technology. But this seems somewhat disingenuous, considering that JavaFX is so far almost entirely the brainchild of Sun, and is therefore less open than any browser.

But there are other reasons to be concerned about Google's stake in Firefox and Chrome, too. Some privacy advocates worry that Google's influence over the browser market gives it access to too much user data, which the company collects for the purposes of its massively lucrative online advertising business.

What do you think? Does the overwhelming influence of Google and Microsoft on the browser market mean the Web is destined to become just another proprietary platform? Or will the influence of open source and open standards bodies ensure that the Web remains a free, public resource? Sound off in the PC World community forums.

Neil McAllister is a freelance technology writer based in San Francisco.

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