Chromium vs. Chrome: An Important Distinction in the Age of Browsing Security
Until recently, web browsers served as largely leisure-time tools. These tools were designed for everyday internet users to shop, socialize, or catch up on the news. However, with the recent rise of remote and hybrid work — along with the rapid proliferation of enterprise web applications — the web browser has taken on an entirely new, entirely different role.
Today, the browser has taken on the additional duties of being the average enterprise employee’s primary gateway to the working world. The average knowledge worker now spends the lion’s share of their workday in a web browser. We email, chat, draft memos, conduct research, develop presentations, submit expense reports, and so much more, all within the confines of our preferred web browser.
As a result, it has become increasingly important for both consumers and corporations to carefully consider which web browser they choose to use — especially in a working environment.
Chromium v. Chrome – Choose Wisely…
As of May 2023, the Google Chrome browser accounted for 63 percent of global market share for internet browsers. While there’s no single browser that has eclipsed the market, Chrome is certainly a clear favorite among users.
However, Chrome shares part of its distinction as the world’s most popular browser with Chromium — the open-source browser and code-base on which the Chrome browser is based.
Thanks to having the same core code-base, both browsers have a very similar look and feel. However, the two browsers are far from interchangeable. In the rest of this blog post, we’ll dive into the differences and address some of the inherent risks associated with these differences.
Media Support Differs Considerably
One of the main differences between Chromium and Chrome is their support for proprietary codecs. Chrome, which is developed by Google, includes support for several proprietary codecs, including H.264, AAC, and MP3. These codecs are widely used on the web and are supported by most modern browsers.
In contrast, Chromium does not include support for these proprietary codecs by default. This is because Chromium is an open-source project that is designed to be freely available to anyone, and some proprietary codecs require licensing agreements or other legal restrictions.
However, Chromium does include support for several open-source codecs, such as WebM and Opus, which are designed to be free and open to use. These codecs are not as widely used as the proprietary codecs, but they are still supported by many websites and online services.
Manual Updates & Security Patching Put Chromium Users at Risk
Chrome, like most major browsers, benefits from automated security updates and patching. In order to initiate an update, users need only restart their device. This is of absolutely critical importance, especially considering the recent major uptick in zero-day vulnerabilities affecting web browsers.
With Chromium, on the other hand, updates are not included in the build. Instead, Chromium relies on a manual update mechanism that allows users to manually check for updates and install them.
The obvious concern with this is that users may not always be aware of the latest security vulnerabilities and zero-days. While Chrome users remain vulnerable to zero-days from the point of first exploit through the end of the “patch gap” (i.e. the period from when Chrome issues a patch for a known exploit), Chromium users remain vulnerable through the patch gap and until whenever they manage to manually update their browser.
Modification Opens the Door to Vulnerabilities
As an extremely popular open-source project, Chromium is large, complex and always-changing. It consists of many interconnected components, and making changes to the code or configuration can result in unintended interactions between these components that can lead to security vulnerabilities or stability issues.
To be fair to Google’s devs, Chromium is designed to be a secure and stable browser, with many built-in features that work to ensure both. For example, the sandbox feature isolates the browser from the operating system, which helps prevent malware and other threats from infecting the system should a user stumble upon these threats. Additionally, the browser is rigorously tested and reviewed by a team of experts to identify and fix any security vulnerabilities or stability issues — and this is done in a continuous, dedicated fashion.
However, by virtue of being an open-source, living code-base, Chromium leaves itself open to easy modification from anyone inclined to do so. While the ability to modify the code or configuration of Chromium is an essential aspect of open-source projects, doing so can also compromise the security and stability of the browser.
Even seemingly small changes can have a cascading effect on the rest of the code, leading to unforeseen interactions that could result in security vulnerabilities or stability issues. For example, a modification to the way that Chromium handles input could inadvertently open up a security vulnerability that could allow an attacker to execute arbitrary code. Similarly, a change to the way that Chromium interacts with the operating system could cause stability issues that result in crashes or other errors.
A Lack of Stability Puts Chromium Users At-Risk
Another critical difference between these two browsers is that, unlike Chromium, each new version of Chrome undergoes additional testing and quality assurance before being released to the public.
This means that Google Chrome users may experience fewer bugs and stability issues than Chromium users. Additionally, Google Chrome has a larger development team dedicated to maintaining and improving the browser, which can lead to more frequent updates and bug fixes.
Altogether, these differences help to ensure Chrome users enjoy a more stable, secure browsing experience than Chromium users. And while the lay person may struggle to distinguish between the two browsers on the surface level, under the hood they have significant differences.
Don’t Forget, Chromium is Under the Hood of the Major Enterprise Browsers
In the end, despite their many similarities, Chromium and Chrome are very different applications. In an enterprise environment especially, the use of Chromium opens users up to a degree of risk that isn’t advisable. However, it’s important to keep in mind that, as an open-source codebase, Chromium lays the groundwork for a number of other browsers and applications.
In combination with the explosive growth in web app use, and the rapid proliferation of connected devices, the hybrid work revolution has whipped up a perfect storm of cyber threats — and the web browser is at the center of the storm. With malicious actors now placing an increased focus on web browsers, it’s imperative that organizations choose their browser wisely, and maximize their efforts to secure this increasingly-threatened attack surface.
The rise of remote and hybrid work has made web browsing the average employee’s primary gateway to work. As a result, a flurry of secure browsing solutions have emerged over the past couple of years, each promising to keep distributed teams secure while working on the web.
However, not all of these solutions are created equally. One of the most widely-publicized categories of these solutions is the “secure enterprise browser”, which aims to replace employees’ preferred browser with a more secure alternative. However, all of these solutions are based on Chromium. And while they may feel familiar to Chrome users, as we’ve outlined above, being based on Chromium comes with some major challenges and limitations.
Red Access Offers a More Secure Alternative
Thankfully, there is an alternative. With Red Access, you can effectively turn any browser into a secure enterprise browser. You can continue to use Chrome, Firefox, Edge, or whatever your preferred browser may be, all while gaining unparalleled protection from the latest browsing-based threats. The first fully agentless, next-generation browsing solution that protects all browsing activity — inside your browser of choice, and beyond — without compromising the user experience or hampering productivity.
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