Microsoft plans to revamp Edge using Chromium. But what exactly is it?

Microsoft Edge logo on Start menu
Microsoft Edge logo on Start menu (Image credit: Windows Central)

Microsoft's announcement that it will rebuild its Edge browser using Chromium was a bit of a shocker. It almost sounds like Microsoft has decided to let Google build the web browser of choice for Windows computers, and that's a change that would affect a couple billion people, most of which wouldn't even know, as long as they see the familiar icon in the Start menu. It would also be a change that gives Google a billion more users by default and heads down a path where there is only one company and one choice if you want to use the web. Nobody wants that. Thankfully, that's not the case. And Chromium is very different than Chrome.

While Chromium is a project started by Google, it's really not what you might think it is. And that's because of its open-source nature, which allows it to be anything.

Related: Everything you need to know about Microsoft Edge, Chromium, and Blink

What's in a name?

Google has a frustrating way of using the same name for things that really aren't the same. Android is a good example. Everyone knows what Android is: it's the OS used in a couple billion smartphones made by 100 or so different companies. But it's also an open-source application framework used by companies like the now-defunct Research In Motion (RIM), the company that used to make BlackBerrys, and an open-source base for a standalone OS that companies like Amazon, Delta Airlines, and Exxon use to power tablets, in-flight infotainment systems, and unmanned payment kiosks that are built using the Android Open Source Project.

Microsoft is smart to use what has already been built instead of spending billions to rebuild.

Chromium is very similar. You can install a standalone application for Windows, macOS and any flavor of Linux named Chromium that's a complete web browser complete with synchronization through Google's could services. But Chromium is also the name of the open-source code project used to make Chromium, as well as the Chrome web browser, Chrome OS, Amazon Silk, and the Android Chrome web-view component companies like Twitter can use to build a browser into an application.

The latter is the part that has Microsoft interested. Google started the Chromium project and has done a lot of work to make it easy for anyone to download the source code, modify it as they see fit, and create their own product. Chromium can be used to build any type of browser, like a file manager, photo gallery or a web browser. The company building the final product can change anything it likes in the code and use any parts of it. Having this ready-made and working base code means that Microsoft doesn't have to spend several years and several billion dollars to build itself.

It doesn't mean that Google is in your web browser once Microsoft uses the Chromium source code to make the new and improved Edge.

Chrome vs. Chromium vs. Edge

The Chromium code can be used as-is and built into a familiar looking web browser, but it's very different than the Chrome web browser. The basics are present in both: the design of the interface, the Blink rendering engine, and the option to synchronize all your user data in Google's cloud. But that's where the similarities end.

Google adds plenty of its own closed source and proprietary pieces into the Chrome browser that Chromium lacks. These options aren't available in Chromium and need to be added by an end user like you or me or by any company using the Chromium source to build its own standalone product. What follows is a list of them.

Media codecs

Chrome includes licensed codecs for AAC, H.264, and MP3 file support. Support for a set of "free" codecs is included, and those are Opus, Theora, Vorbis VP8, VP9, and WAV. Without the proprietary codecs, Chromium can't play a lot of content on the web, including HTML5 videos streamed in the H.264 codec and web media mostly sucks.

Adobe Flash Player

Flash content isn't dead, and the Chrome web browser includes a sandboxed API (the Pepper API also known as PPAPI) that gets constant security updates to play it in the browser window. A Flash player is not free. Anything not free isn't included in the Chromium source.

Background updates

Chrome has a mechanic to automatically update with patches for web exploits and new features the same as Microsoft does for Windows. Chromium lacks this.

Automatic security sandboxing

Chromium includes a sandbox that prevents any type of code from making any changes to any files outside of its own. That means malware ads can't change your settings or get into your address book. But in Chromium, it can be disabled. Google's Chrome web browser enforces the sandbox and won't run without nagging you that it's not fully functional.

Extension install policies

Chrome only allows extensions hosted at the Chrome Web Store to be installed unless you enter developer mode. Chromium has no such mechanic and can install a properly built extension from anywhere.

Error logging and reporting

Chrome has an option to automatically send crash reports to Google and Chromium doesn't.

Microsoft won't be trying to build Google Chrome. It's going to use the Chromium source to make Edge into a better browser, especially for ARM tablets and laptops. That means it will have to supply any of the above tools and options itself. Microsoft certainly will, too. And it will not use some of the tools Chromium includes, like synchronization of user data through the Google cloud. Edge is Microsoft's product and will sync through your Microsoft account, and Chromium can be built with that option included because it's open source. All of Edge's current features could be built into Chromium as well as any new features for always-connected tablets and laptops that Microsoft develops.

Amazon's Silk browser is a perfect example of this. Amazon uses Chromium as a base for its browser for Fire OS devices like Kindle tablets or the Echo Show, but it includes plenty of Amazon-centric options like sync and casting to Fire TV devices. Chromium did a lot of the hard work for things like page rendering and tabbed browsing but Amazon ditched much of the rest and built it into a product of its own. That's what Microsoft will do.

Chromium is more than just Google

Chromium was started by Google in 2008 and is maintained by Google, but it isn't the only company that helps make it. Anyone can contribute, and plenty of other companies you'll recognize have helped turn it into a stable and lightweight (yes, this isn't Chrome and is a lot less resource-intensive) tabbed browsing shell for the web and more. Code for Chromium comes from these companies as well as Google:

  • Samsung.
  • Intel.
  • Adobe.
  • Opera.
  • Motorola.
  • Microsoft.

Microsoft is a new addition, but it will have a big impact in the very near future, especially when it comes to ARM64 versions. Microsoft and Qualcomm have staked their future on ARM64, and that means plenty of attention will go towards Windows applications for the architecture. Like Edge, and that means Chromium.

Microsoft doesn't have to contribute its changes to Chromium. Amazon doesn't. But I'm almost certain that Microsoft will because it makes sense. One good idea gets better when other really smart people can keep working on it. Why not have the amazing developers at companies like Intel or Samsung improve the things you have implemented, right? That can only happen if Microsoft sends its code changes back upstream to the Chromium source.

It's not all roses in Chromium land

On the surface, it looks like Microsoft leveraging Chromium to improve Edge (for the technophiles out there, Microsoft probably just wants to swap EdgeHTML and Chakra for Blink and V8) is great. But it's not going to fix everything.

One not-so-positive bit of fallout is that Firefox and Safari are now the only browsers with measurable numbers that aren't built with the Blink rendering engine. When you look at market share, especially if you're a web developer, that means almost everyone on the planet that can use the web is using Chromium's Blink rendering engine to do it. If you had to develop a web application that didn't render the same using Mozilla's Gecko engine as it does with Blink, you would be crazy to not make the changes for it to run better on the version with 2 billion more users.

In a posting on GitHub, Microsoft said it will try to prevent Blink (and by default Chromium and Google) from taking over the web by essentially having veto powers on web standards. From Microsoft:

We believe the evolution of the open web is best served through the standards communities, and the open web benefits from open debate from a wide variety of perspectives. We will remain deeply and vigorously engaged in the standards discussions in the context of the W3C, ECMA and the WHATWG where the perspectives of vendors developing competing browsers and the larger web community can be heard and considered.

Microsoft has come a long way since its "embrace, extend, and extinguish" days of the early 2000s. If it follows through with its promise to remember that Google shouldn't hold the keys to the web and web standards, that means everyone benefits.

I'm hopeful that will be the case ... even if Mozilla CEO Chris Beard isn't.

I'm an RHCE and Electrical Engineer who loves gadgets of all kinds. You'll find my writings across Mobile Nations and you can hit me on Twitter if you want to say hey.

  • Would a single standard for something like a browser be such a bid thing? Sure offer different looks and features but come on, a standard would be great.
  • It's not a bad thing if you have a committed group contributing that makes decisions that benefit "the people", and still helps progress and innovate the web. It's a bad thing if it stifles creativity, prevents the evolution of the web and web-based technology, and caters to a single group/company/organization or is "weaponized" or leveraged for reasons that don't benefit "the people". I feel like Chrome still falls into that second category. I think having Firefox and Safari as strong-ish competition keeps them a little more honest... Maybe I'm wrong, but for all the complaints that people had about IE, it still did a lot to push the web forward and things would have been better if some of the things IE did had been adopted as a standard.
  • Some were adopted as standards, many years later (when IE was already almost dead) But now I feel like Chrome is already the new IE in some ways.
    It lags behind most other browser for OS integration, copies some features from edge & others years later, has poor or late support for some standard APIs when google isn't dominant enough to be the main beneficiary (webVR...)
  • Nope. But not when a company that profits from those web standards is also the one developing them. Chromium for everyone and everything means that the standards will always be what's best for Chrome, not what's best for us. I think Microsoft leveraging Chromium for Edge's engine is a good thing for them. It means they will be able to spend more time and money on other things that may benefit us, too. But I also hope they can help shape web standards so they aren't just what is best for Chromebooks. That's because I use a Chromebook full-time and I want the platform to get better and incorporate better ideas from other companies.
  • A single engine would make zero days an automatic homerun for hackers, malware, and thieves; oh my.
  • I am an Edge defender, it works amazing on my Surface Pro 5, but I just got a new family laptop - HP, non touch, with an i3 8000 series chip, Edge runs really weird. Even, some Windows 10 apps are not installing for the users I want, and giving me install errors. Citrix connection with W10 app and Edge was really not good. I wanted to stay on S mode, and use Edge only, but it didn't work out. I think switching to Chromium is the answer.
  • This decision makes sense, but I find it sad.
    Because EdgeHTML and chakra were good (js benchs and good html5 compliance), and i'm more pessimist than you are on the dominance of blink: safari uses webkit, that was the project google forked for blink just a few years ago, si they're still very similar.
    There is a good chance that with now only 2 engines (blink/webkit and gecko) more and more lazy devs will only focus on blink... and not just google developers that were already doing that for some time. But of course that was a necessary decision, not just for edge, but for the whole OS.
    MS enforced the use of the techs behind edge for the apps in the store, to ensure more consistency, but many developers were already building apps base on chromium, that prevented them from publishing in the store.
    With chromium behind edge, there is no reason to block those kind of apps. Even concurrent browsers like opera/vivaldi might appear. In the end that was probably the best move for MS, but I'm not sure that's the best for the web...
  • I think Microsoft should donate their code names to google... from edge... chakra sounds much better than blink... node.js equally terrible name...
  • I was also devastated when Opera dropped Presto in favor of Webkit. It did became a great browser once again. Sure, it's missing the tab stacking that's now present in Vivaldi, smooth scrolling and touch support is crap but it's a better browser IMO than Chrome. Edge could be the same. It's still worrying for the state of the web overall though.
  • "Microsoft plans to revamp Edge using Chromium. But what exactly is it?" Its a browser that renders web pages correctly. Unlike the current version of Edge. "It almost sounds like Microsoft has decided to let Google build the web browser of choice for Windows computers" Google already did that, years ago. Its called Chrome. Microsoft did not have to "let Google", Google just did it because the MS offering was so weak. "...and heads down a path where there is only one company and one choice if you want to use the web. Nobody wants that." Were you part of the "nobody wants that" crowd 15 years ago when Microsoft Internet Explorer had 93% browser share?
  • The demise of Netscape was a big problem, and lead to awful browser stagnation. IE was at its worst at that time. I fear it'll happen again.
  • Netscape spent too much resources to find bugs in IE and that killed them. During v4.0 days IE & Netscape were equal and Netscape had better looking UI too.
  • But it's not the same, because the basic engine is open source and will be contributed to by several major competing companies. IE, on the other hand, was an entirely MS affair. It's domination of a kind, but still different and arguably better. Also, IE lost its total dominance. The same might happen to Chromium.
  • Edge will probably still have all the features I know and love...
    * Default to the Bing search engine
    * Favorites synced via my MS account
    * Add notes/markup
    * Read aloud
    * Set tabs aside
    * Hover over tabs "peek" view
    * Reading view But now you're telling me I will also have the rendering engine that 99.9999999% of web devs are coding to? Yeah! The "engine" pales in comparison to the features for me. Sticking with Edge.
  • I have the same perspective. Web developers converged on Chromium and not the WC3 standards and that's just how the cookie crumbles. Also, Chromium is open source and several competing companies have their fingers in the pie - so that's good for the consumer. This isn't really Google domination - or at least, it isn't nearly as bad as the bad old days of IE's domination. And yes, all those Edge features are great and I'll bet most will stay, and I'll keep using Edge on W10 and Android.
  • That's assuming they'll simply replace the engine, and not start over from scratch again. It took several years for Edge to be good enough for daily use.
  • I don't see it will make any changes to the Edge usage. People using other browser will keep using them.
  • Agree, Chrome has the better features, mainly, syncing favorites on domain joined PCs.. Im tempted to reopen the case when I told MS this and update the comments with "Told ya".. lol
  • I don't think the point is to try to suddenly attract new users in a direct way, I think it's to be able to have users not complain about certain websites not working as well on edge and thus another reason to not use edge. That's more on the web developers being lazy, but Microsoft can't just put the blame on some ambiguous person who made a website.
  • I have a simple rule . Stay away from anything Google
  • Quick question, does this mean that the extensions in the store might be placed on the web instead?
  • Progressive web apps! Progressive web apps! Progressive web apps! Progressive web apps! Progressive web apps! (Throwing chair out the window....) Progressive web apps!!!!!
  • This and so many other things
  • "One not-so-positive bit of fallout is that Firefox and Safari are now the only browsers with measurable numbers that aren't built with the Blink rendering engine."
    I will continue using Firefox as my main Browser as it would be the safest on the planet!
  • Everyone needs to calm down over this non-story. First, Edge has 4% - and dropping - of worldwide desktop browser share. 4%. That is less than Safari on desktop. Yes, the Mac browser has more users than Edge. So chromium picking up Edge's minuscule share is not going to change the world. If Edge had 25% share, then this story might be important. Second, Mozilla should be worried about making Firefox better. Not what the Edges and Operas of the world are doing. Edge and Opera are in the "other" category when it comes to worldwide usage numbers. Third, to think that web sites are going to cater to Chrome is absurd. For example, in the U.S., when looking at ALL computer users (desktop, phone and tablet), Chrome leads Safari by 49% to 32%. That's not exactly dominating, is it? When looking at mobile only, the numbers are vastly different. Safari leads Chrome 59% to 34%. Worldwide, the mobile numbers are Chrome 53%, Safari 22%. IOW, Chrome has PLENTY of competition from Safari. With numbers like this, no one is going to ignore iPhone/iPad/Mac users. I realize this story generates lots of comments, and that is why there are so many stories about Edge in the last few days. But this change is really not going to amount to anything. To quote 2 VERY different movies: "The problems of 3 little browsers don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" and "Lighten up, Francis".
  • Safari sucks.
    The first thing I did when I got my new corporate iphone was to put Firefox on it (yes, I am aware it uses the built‑in iOS WKWebView engine, because Apple forces all browsers in the AppStore on iOS to do so.)
    Still, it is VASTLY superior to Safari.
    I look forward to a Chromium-based Edge.
    This move is being done to keep the Corporate customers happy as Edge is a PITA in the corporate world, and just about everyone has used the W10 GPO settings to redirect all URLs from Edge to IE on corporate W10 desktops to maintain compatibility with their legacy Web apps. Chrome is much better than Edge at running those and has become the de-facto browser in much of the corporate world because of it.
    This also moves Edge development into the same realm as the iOS dev team which has successfully used the built‑in iOS WKWebView to create the iOS vesion of IE.
    They are more similar than different and this will unify that development.
    This also furthers the MS move to become more of an Application Platform vendor leveraging their Azure back-end than remaining a monolithic OS vendor (Windows.)
    I expect MS to back-port many of the useful features of Edge back into the Chromium project, to the benefit of all.
    It ain't the 90's anymore and "embrace, extend, extinguish" is dead, replaced by; "Support, Service, and Supply".
  • They could have prevented this day one by separating edgehtml from the OS.. The writing was on wall years ago, all of the ******** and screaming from the insider community fell on deaf ears.. (which is why I no longer install insider builds and have moved my company to the chrome browser after MS refused to support favorite syncing on domain joined PCs, its a security risk they said, ok, Chrome it is) no reason to listen to a few insiders tell you how to stay competitive. Hey Microsoft, come on in, the water's fine.
  • It appears Microsoft is abandoning its OS and adopting Android and Google as its preferred alternative. No loyalty is shown in its behavior. They doesn't care about user's privacy, they only care about incomes. PWA handled by Google?
  • Quite a jump of conclusions there.
  • If this means I can use Edge to display sites that only display properly in Chrome, instead of using Chrome then I'm all for it. Nice typo too: 'Google could services', pretty sure 'could' should be 'cloud,' ;)
  • How to delete a comment?
  • Going to keep using Firefox, don't care about them all, no way to use Google products.
  • Good. Edge is terrible. Regardless, I am sticking with Firefox.
  • The same argument could be made for Microsoft killing Windows and adopting AOSP. Just replace Edge with AOSP when it appears in this article.
  • What's your point trying to compare Windows and AOSP?
    What similarity is there between a browser and an entire OS?
  • My point was beyond obvious. A browser and OS are almost one and the same these days. Just look at ChromeOS. This argument for Microsoft switching to Google's open source browser, can easily be made for switching to either of Google's open source operating systems.
  • Shouldn't you be putting up your Festivus aluminum pole?
  • Check back in a couple years when Microsoft Central is making the argument that adopting Chromium OS and dropping Windows is a good thing.
  • I have the same opinion. The world doesn't need the third mobile platform neither the third OS. Well done MS, well done.