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Google should really open source Chromium

Google left a lot of ticked off Linux programmers when it changed its API rules for Chromium. But maybe it's time Chromium stopped being a Google-only open-source project and became a true community open-source program.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

On March 15, 2021, Google will limit access to many Chrome application programming interfaces (API) inside the open-source Chromium web browser. Google's doing this because, "third-party Chromium-based browsers integrating Google cloud-based features, such as Chrome sync and Click to Call, that were intended only for Google Chrome users". 

In other words, "this meant that a small fraction of users could sign into their Google Account and store their personal Chrome sync data, such as bookmarks, not just with Google Chrome, but also with some third-party Chromium-based browsers". 

Google has a perfect right to do this. It's their web browser. Yes, Chromium is open source, but if you're using their APIs to access their services, Google gets to call the shots. But, should Google alone be the one to decide? 

Google's move made many Linux distribution Chromium developers and maintainers miserable. As Red Hat's community Linux distro Fedora, Chromium's maintainer, Tom Callaway tweeted, with Google "cutting off access to the Sync and 'other Google Exclusive' APIs from all builds except Google Chrome. This will make the Fedora Chromium build significantly less functional (along with every other distro packaged Chromium)". 

Fedora will, however, keep shipping Chromium. Other Linux distributors have had enough, however. Eric Hameleers, who maintains Chromium for Slackware Linux, is dumping Chromium. "I will not package and distribute a Chromium for Slackware if that package is crippled by the absence of login to Chrome Sync," he said. 

So what's the big deal since, let's be honest, there are probably less than a million Linux Chromium users compared to the almost 3-billion PC Chrome users or even Firefox's approximately 220-million users? The big deal is that restricting how Chromium can be used is a far bigger problem that affects more than just Linux programmers and users.

What do I mean? Can you tell me what Vivaldi, Opera, Brave, and Microsoft Edge all have in common? Each and every one is based on Chromium's source code. Except for Firefox, there are no important non-Chromium PC web browsers left. True, Safari on iPhones and iPads isn't a member of the Chromium family, but even on Macs, where Safari is also built-in, Chrome is used by a third of Mac owners.

In terms of market share, the US federal government's Digital Analytics Program (DAP), which keeps a running count of the last 90 days of US government website visits and is the best guide to web browser popularity, indicated that as of the end of January, 90% of all PC and Mac web browsers used either Chrome or a Chromium-based web browser.

The last time we had a browser that so utterly dominated market share was in 2002 when Internet Explorer (IE) ruled the internet world with a 96% market share. In case you weren't around yet or you've forgotten, years earlier, in 1998, the Department of Justice (DoJ) sued Microsoft for bundling IE with Windows 95 in its successful effort to kill off the other major browser of the day, Netscape. In theory, the DoJ won. In practice, well, when was the last time you used Netscape? 

Now, Google isn't using Chromium and Chrome to force people to buy Chromebooks as Microsoft did with IE and Windows PCs back in its Evil Empire days. But, as Linux developers just discovered to their dismay, whatever Google wants to do with Chromium, Google can do it and it doesn't matter what anyone else wants.

This is not how open source is supposed to work. I think it's time for all those Chromium developers out there to have a serious talk with Google. The vast majority of open-source projects don't have a single company calling all the shots. Why should Chromium?

That's especially true when you consider just how dominant Chromium is in the web browser world. You could even argue that Chromium is the single most important end-user, open-source program in the world. Think about it. With 90% control of the browser marketplace, that's not just people "using" the web. No, it's 90% of people buying goods from Amazon; working at their jobs using Microsoft 365; running their line of business programs such as Salesforce, and on and on. 

It's time to think about taking Chromium out of Google's control and giving it to a neutral third-party foundation. If Google doesn't want to go along with this idea, fine. Fork Chromium. It won't be the first or last time a top open-source program has been forked. 

Yes, the problem here isn't with the code itself. It's with the rules that Google has applied to its APIs. We've just had our noses rubbed into how those service APIs have locked developers into a world where Google calls all the shots.

It's not easy to replace those API service functionalities. Just ask the developers behind the Google-less Android /e/OS operating system and smartphones. But, it can be done, and it could be done much easier by a community foundation with, or without, Google's help.

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