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What is Chromium?

Since it was introduced in 2008, the Google Chrome browser has remained one of the most popular methods of navigating the internet. However, did you know that Chrome was created as part of the Chromium Project? It was a Google-funded, open source project that launched both a browser and operating system that’s free for anyone to try or use to develop software. Today, many browsers use the Chromium base that Google’s team once created, including Opera and Microsoft’s latest release of its Edge browser.

Chromium also forms the backbone of Google Chrome and Chromebooks, and as such, this software is incredibly useful to user interface designers, software developers, and everyday netizens. Furthermore, any software built around Chromium is instantly compatible across the internet, which may provide Microsoft with an opportunity to become a genuine competitor in the browser arena after some time in the weeds.

Here’s a look at how the Chromium Project began, what the Chromium browser and OS can do, and how it changed web browser development forever.

What is Chromium, and how is it different from Chrome?

Google Chrome was released in September of 2008 to much fanfare and acclaim, and alongside it, Google announced that it had funded Chromium, “an open source browser project that aims to build a safer, faster, and more stable way for all Internet users to experience the web.” While you would be correct in thinking that Chromium’s source code helped form the architecture that makes up Google Chrome, you might be surprised to discover that the similarities end there. Both browsers are based on the same foundation, but by adding proprietary code (such as JavaScript or HTML5) or an automatic update feature, you end up with Chrome and not Chromium. In other words, Chromium provides a free web browser that is capable of being adapted and modified to suit the needs of individuals and companies.

Chromium was used by Microsoft in the creation of its newly revamped Edge browser, due in part to Chromium’s ability to provide instant compatibility with the internet, regardless of whether users have a PC or Mac. Because of this built-in ease of use, Microsoft has the opportunity to re-enter the browser marketplace and perhaps reinvigorate competition and innovations as leading developers strive to improve. Microsoft adopting the Chromium platform represents an enormous step toward the widespread adoption of the Chromium browser. It’s potential for springboarding third-party developers, webmasters, and app designers are substantial, but only time will tell.

Edge Chromium release and reception

Image via Neowin

Edge Chromium was developed under the code name Anaheim during 2019 and released on January 15, 2020. Since Chromium is open source and Microsoft isn’t in the habit of charging for a browser download anyway, there are no costs associated with this project — you can get it for free. If you are concerned about keeping your internet habits private, Edge offers an alternative to both Safari and Firefox, providing better privacy protections than Chrome. Given that Google doesn’t plan to eliminate trackers and third-party cookies until 2022, this may appeal to the more security-conscious netizens and increase Edge’s profile and user base.

If you were wondering what Mozilla, creator of Firefox, thought about all the browser reshuffling — it wasn’t pleased. Another browser competitor probably isn’t good news, especially not another one that uses Chromium. However, Mozilla’s blog post mostly criticized Microsoft for “giving up” on Edge and creating a more monopolistic browser environment.

The company is worried that this puts entirely too much of the internet in Google’s hands, rather than coming up with viable alternatives. It’s an interesting take, but the full effects of the new browser are still largely unknown. Using open source Google tools doesn’t exactly mean Google has control over the project — Google itself has been silent about this development.

In addition, owners of Chromebooks may or may not be surprised to discover that the foundation of their PC’s OS is actually Chromium. The main differences between Chrome and Chromium come from a significant number of features and software that Chrome has but Chromium currently doesn’t — security sandboxes, Adobe Flash (PPAPI), error reporting, and Google Update, among others. In addition, the Chromium OS offers an impressive set of code, community resources, and tools for those interested in ensuring a website functions identically across browsers, smartphone app developers, and those interested in creating a custom PC.

Chrome extensions and Edge features in Chromium

Image used with permission by copyright holder

When the announcement for the new Edge browser was made, many people had a similar question: “If the new browser is going to be built with Chromium, does that mean I can use Chrome extensions with it?” Those who have spent any time with the Chrome browser are likely to have at least a few extensions to customize their internet experience or add specific tools they use daily. Kyle Alden also confirmed that the new browser was created with the intent to support Chrome extensions.

As it currently stands, Edge does come with a select number of Microsoft-approved extensions, including LinkedIn, Twitter, Amazon Assistant, and Evernote Web Clipper. If you’re interested in installing Chrome extensions to optimize your browser, you can do so after toggling a switch in the Edge Extensions menu to allow extensions from other stores. However, many Chrome extensions are currently untested, and Microsoft includes caveats about them working successfully in Edge. Programs that require companion software to work may not function, even if installed correctly, and extensions that depend on access to your Google account to stay synced or require a login may encounter issues as well. Microsoft has promised to improve the selection of available Chrome extensions as well as incorporate ones from Firefox, but there is little news on that front at the moment.

As far as user experience goes, anyone who is familiar with how Internet Explorer works should be able to navigate Edge with little difficulty, though Edge has implemented measures like combining buttons and tabs to save space. Improvements from Internet Explorer include the inclusion of Microsoft’s Cortana, the ability to enter URLs and search terms at the top of the page, built-in social media sharing features, Reading Mode, and much more.

However, this does raise a question: What will happen to all the older Edge apps dependent on EdgeHTML? Well, Microsoft just announced end-of-service dates for Internet Explorer 11 for Microsoft Teams on November 30, 2020; Edge Legacy on March 9, 2021; and Microsoft 365 on August 17, 2021. At the time of writing, it is currently unclear what this means for EdgeHTML’s future, but the signs are not encouraging.

Will Microsoft bring some of these over to its new Chromium-based browser? According to initial code commits spotted online, that is very much a reality. Microsoft is already pushing Google to add support for the custom Windows 10 system stylings for video captions in Chromium. Noted in a separate code commit, Microsoft also wants to add support for dragging and dropping Outlook emails and attachments in the upcoming Chromium-based web browser — just as the feature currently functions in Edge.

Other Chromium browsers on the market

Google Chrome is one of the most popular web browsers available today that is built around Chromium, and Edge is the new kid, but there are three other popular browsers with Chromium source code: Opera, Brave, and Vivaldi. While these browsers may not have the brand recognition of Google or Microsoft, they each offer a reliable browsing experience with a robust suite of tools and features to rival their mainstream competitors.

  • Opera is renowned for a no-nonsense browsing experience that allows users to seamlessly integrate third-party apps like Telegram and WhatsApp, provides a news section to match both Edge and Chrome, and offers effortless transfer of notes and web links between your PC and mobile device.
  • Brave is focused on user privacy first and foremost and provides a bare-bones browser that is free of diversions. The main feature consists of counters to let you know how many trackers and ads have been blocked and how much time you’ve saved as a result.
  • Vivaldi is a fairly recent arrival that gives users both privacy and personalization with an extension gallery to rival Chrome, customizable sidebar tabs, choosing nicknames for your search engines, mappable mouse gesture commands, session tabs, and more.

While the future of Chromium has yet to be decided, Microsoft’s choice to abandon its own Edge browser in favor of a proven open source platform speaks volumes. Edge will come standard on future Windows PCs, but anyone with a supported version of MacOS or Windows 10 can download the browser for free and try it out for themselves.

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Daniel Martin
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Daniel Martin is a technology expert, freelance writer, and researcher with more than a decade of experience. After earning a…
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