A new front in the browser wars has opened in Europe

Have you ever been trapped in a bad relationship? I’m stuck in one right now with Google Chrome.

The browser’s good looks can no longer hide the ugliness that lurks inside. Chrome devours my laptop’s memory, sucks away its battery, and harvests my data. All the while, the software expands Google’s almighty empire.

Chrome, you treat me terribly. Why can’t I quit you? 

One reason for my undeserved loyalty is that rival browsers catch my eye. But that’s started to change. 

A raft of pro-competition rules are pushing alternatives towards the mainstream. Leading the charge is the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA), which forces tech giants to open their platforms to rival browsers. The law expands the options for almost half a billion people. It also gives companies around the world new routes into the market.

As the rules take effect, Europe is becoming a hotbed of hungry challengers to the established brands. By building niches and harnessing emerging tech, they’re developing alternatives to Chrome and Apple’s Safari.

Norway’s Opera, for instance, is tapping the power of AI. Cyprus’ Aloha is instead focusing on privacy features. Germany’s Ecosia, meanwhile, is concentrating on sustainability. All of them are poised to exploit the rare blend of legal and digital opportunities.

Across the continent, the market’s established giants face rising threats. A new browser war is brewing in Europe.

A history of browser wars

Chrome ascended as rivals fell in market showdowns known as the browser wars. 

Tim Berners-Lee sparked the first skirmish when he released the world’s first browser in 1990. Within a few years, a wave of alternatives had emerged. 

The first real showstopper was Mosaic, which introduced a pioneering graphical point-and-click interface. That marked the start of the web as we know it.

Mosaic soon evolved into Netscape Navigator, which became the leading browser in 1995. But that year also welcomed a powerful new rival: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE). The first browser war had begun. 

Backed by Microsoft’s deep pockets, bundled with Windows, and free for every user, IE tore into Navigator’s user base.

Entrepreneur Marc Andreessen speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2016
Mosaic and Netscape were co-created by Marc Andreessen, who now runs the influential VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. Credit: TechCrunch
Entrepreneur Marc Andreessen speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2016

By 2001, IE had a 96% market share. But Navigator didn’t die without leaving a successor.

Netscape entrusted the browser code to a young non-profit called the Mozilla Foundation. In 2004, Mozilla integrated the old code into the Firefox browser.

Brandishing new features, customisability, and privacy protections, Firefox took the fight to IE. As the duo battled, a third combatant entered the second browser war: Chrome. Launched in 2008, the software offered powerful developer tools, integration with the Google ecosystem, and a minimalist design. The package quickly gained traction. 

By 2017, Chrome’s market share had expanded to over 60%. Firefox and IE, meanwhile, had slumped well below 5% each. The only viable competitor still standing was Apple’s Safari, which had a foothold in devices built by its owner.

Mozilla’s former CTO, Andreas Gal, declared that Chrome had won the second browser war. “It’s safe to say that Chrome is eating the browser market, and everyone else except Safari is getting obliterated,” he said.

His verdict endures today. Chrome’s only true rival is still Safari. Thanks largely to preferential treatment on iPhones and iPads, the browser maintains around 18% of the market. In a distant third place with 5% is Edge, Microsoft’s replacement for IE. Firefox’s share, meanwhile, has dived below 3%. That’s only fractionally ahead of the leading browser born in Europe: Opera.

Boasting a lightweight build, innovative features, and support for an interoperable internet, Opera survived the first browser wars. As a new one simmers, the company is drawing support from powerful allies.

The EU enters the fray

From Opera’s birth in 1995, the company has advocated for open web standards. It’s a cause that’s also close to the heart of web pioneer Håkon Wium Lie, who served as the browser’s CTO from 1998 to 2016. 

While working with Berners-Lee at Cern, Wium Lee invented Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), a cornerstone web language that determines a site’s appearance. The 58-year-old’s efforts to implement CSS provided an enduring lesson about the browser market.

“I saw that those corporate entities didn’t have the web as a whole as their first priority,” Wium Li tells TNW. “They wanted to dominate, which is natural from a corporate point of view. But as consumers, activists, and developers, we need to insist on a better world. And that’s where Opera fit in. It was a smaller, faster and more standards-compliant browser.”

Former Opera CTO Håkon Wium Lie
For three decades, Wium Lie has championed web standards. Credit: Carl Henrik
Former Opera CTO Håkon Wium Lie

In 2007, Wium Lie led an Opera complaint in the EU over IE’s dominance. Under pressure from lawmakers, Microsoft pledged to give European consumers better access to rival browsers in Windows. For Wium Lie, that still wasn’t enough to restore competition. But stricter rules are emerging.

On March 6, the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) began forcing big tech “gatekeepers” to open up their platforms to competition. Browsers are one of the law’s big targets.

Under the DMA, digital giants have to restrict preferential treatment for their own browsers and enhance interoperability with third-party rivals. 

The rules also loosen Apple and Google’s stranglehold on mobile operating systems. As the owners of iOS and Android, the two tech giants could previously make Safari and Chrome default browsers with peerless integration on billions of devices. 

The DMA has dismantled that strategy. Overnight, nearly 400 million Europeans gained easier access to alternative browsers, while companies worldwide received new routes to the market. 

When a device is now set up, iOS and Android must display browser “choice screens” that offer alternatives to Safari and Chrome. Users then select their preferred default browser. 

Alongside the choice screens, tech giants must now offer new frameworks and APIs for third-party browser engines. Apple has also announced a new interoperability request form for developers.

These changes have created new openings for browsers born in Europe.

Europe’s browsers on the rise

The DMA had an instant impact. Over just one month, Opera reported new user growth of 63% and a 39% increase in browser default selections on iOS.

The impact spread from Europe’s northern peak to the EU’s deep south. In Cyprus, the privacy-centric Aloha Browser announced that new downloads in the bloc had surged by 250% under the DMA. Germany’s climate-conscious Ecosia browser and Norway’s highly customisable Vivaldi also reported substantial growth.

Independent experts substantiate the claims. “The early signs are that the DMA is opening the doors to more competition,” Stephanie Liu, a senior analyst at tech research firm Forrester, tells TNW.

A particularly big door has opened to browser engines.

Before the DMA, every browser on iOS had to run on WebKit, the engine that underpins Safari. That disrupted the performance and features of Opera, Edge, and the many other browsers that use Google’s Chromium, an open-source browser project that runs on the Blink engine. It also inhibited Firefox, which runs on Gecko.

Under the DMA, however, Apple has to permit non-WebKit engines on iOS in the EU. That’s created new opportunities to differentiate rival browsers.

“With Chromium, we can actually make changes,” Vivaldi CEO Jon von Tetzchner tells TNW. “With WebKit, we could not.”

The improvement, however, comes with major caveats. Outside the EU, the new rules don’t apply. Furthermore, the engine rules don’t cover iPads, which Apple argues run on another operating system. On these platforms, browsers still have to run on WebKit. 

As a result, the challengers have to maintain different versions of their software “Or they can just concede defeat and use WebKit,” Liu says.

Ironically, the ruling could actually strengthen one of the gatekeepers. Google spent over a year building a non-WebKit version of Chrome for iOS. As holes emerge in Apple’s ecosystem, the browser can fill the gaps. 

“One of the awkward, unintentional outcomes is that Chrome will actually be one of the winners of this decision,” Liu says. “On the upside, users will have more choice.”

Smaller browsers have also argued that Apple’s choice screens don’t comply with the DMA. Last month, Mozilla said under a fifth of iOS users have been shown a choice screen since the new rules arrived. Even fewer Android users had seen one, the Firefox maker said. 

Logos for the brwosers Chrome, Safari, Opera, Internet Explorer, and Firefox
IE’s lengthy spot in the top five browsers was recently taken by Microsoft’s Edge. CreditL Needpix
Logos for the brwosers Chrome, Safari, Opera, Internet Explorer, and Firefox

Apple’s first implementation was “really, really, really terrible,” von Tetzchner says. The screens have since improved, he adds, but the selection process remains clunky. “They’re trying to make this ineffective.”

Alternative browsers also want EU rules applied globally. With governments around the world planning their own versions of the DMA and antitrust pressure on Chrome growing in the US, there are signs they will eventually get their wish. In the meantime, they’re strengthening their differential features.

The GenAI boom

Alternative browsers cannot match the resources Google and Apple lavish on Chrome and Safari. Instead, the challengers have to offer differential features. A wave of these has been unleashed by the generative AI boom.

Opera was among the early adopters. The browser quickly launched the Aria chatbot, which sits within the browser’s sidebar. By tapping OpenAI’s GPT model, Aria adds a Q&A approach to web browsing. Opera also recently became the first major browser with built-in support for local AI models. 

But the biggest AI impact emerged in a US challenger. In January, the New York-based Arc browser launched a slick new feature that transforms search results from multiple pages into a single summary. Unfortunately, it also deprives content creators of vital income. But the innovation offered a unique selling point.

Privacy features offer another way to differentiate from Chrome’s data vacuum. Vivaldi, for instance, pitches built-in blockers for ads, pop-ups, and trackers, while Aloha promises to not collect any data on site visits, searches, or locations.

It’s in these niches that the upstarts are best placed to flourish. “We’re not building a browser for 80% of web users so we don’t have to fit everyone,” Joanna Czajka, Product Director at Opera, tells TNW. “We’re building a browser for 5% of people — and they’re special because they choose Opera to browse the web.”

In Liu’s view, that specialised approach is the only clear path to growth. With Chrome and Safari deeply ingrained in our online lives, she expects a limited impact from the DMA.

“It opens the door to competition, but it’s not going to be a floodgate,” she says. “You are still competing against these incredibly well-known, well-funded, and well-resourced companies.”

That competition has created an uneven battleground. Today’s browser war is not a conflict between superpowers. It’s more akin to rebel groups fighting skirmishes against a ruling king. But history suggests even the largest digital empires can crumble.

“There were people saying no one could compete with Mosaic,” von Tetzchner recalls. “Then they said no one could compete with Netscape… In some ways, it was a tougher environment then, because there was only one big player at times.”

As for the big player in my life, Chrome is still hanging on to my heart. Its good looks haven’t faded and we have so much history together. But if any browser has a niche for shallow users with drained devices and privacy needs, give me a call.

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