Google move hints at Chrome for Android

The Android browser is becoming a full-fledged member of the WebKit browser engine project. That could help Web developers, Android users, and Google itself.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Google Chrome logo

Android's unbranded browser is coming back into the WebKit fold.

The software--called simply "Browser" on Android phones and tablets--is based on the open-source browser engine called WebKit. It's long been disassociated from it, though, and now Google is trying to reunite the projects in a move that could portend the arrival of a branded Chrome on Android.

"We're looking forward to a much better collaboration with the WebKit community," Google's Andrei Popescu said yesterday in a mailing list message flagged by new Chrome developer Peter Beverloo and spotted by TechCrunch.

Convergence between the Android browser and Chrome seems inevitable. Tablets bring a more PC-like experience to browsing, and Google is of course keen on tablets with the arrival of version 3 of Android, aka Honeycomb. Google TV, also based on Android, has a browser that sports the Chrome brand. But what's been keeping them apart?

At the Google I/O show in May, Chrome Senior Vice President Sundar Pichai said it's because, although the browsers share some common code, the Android browser is "not based on Chromium," the open-source version of Chrome. The implication was that the Chrome brand name carries a certain promise of Web page compatibility that the Android browser couldn't necessarily fulfill.

By merging with the WebKit project, though, that barrier will be overcome. "We're fully committed to maintaining this new flavor of the Chromium port of WebKit," Popescu said in the message.

And when Beverloo filed a WebKit but to track the project, he said, "The Android Browser has come to a point where it shares enough code with Chrome to entirely reuse the Chromium port of WebKit."

The change is good news, according to Dion Almaer, a browser and Web development expert who mentioned the move on the Function Source blog today.

"Having watched my team deal with painful Android WebKit bugs for the last few weeks, I am very glad to read more news that the Android WebKit is getting Chrome-ier," Almaer said. "When you go deep on making a rich Web application work there, you find sharp corners all over the shop."

In other words, he expects some of the compatibility issues separating Chrome and the Android browser to diminish.

Google wouldn't comment on its branding plans for the browser. In a statement today, the company said:

The Android Browser and Chrome already share a lot of code, such as the same WebKit rendering engine, V8 JavaScript engine, and HTTP [Hypertext Transfer Protocol] stack. We expect them to continue to share more code over time and have actually started harmonizing our efforts so that Google will have just one port of WebKit to maintain. Beyond that, we have nothing further to share at this time.

It seems to me the Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android, due later this year, would be a great time to make the branding change. This version of the mobile operating system is designed to bridge the current divide between Android 2.x for phones and Android 3.x for tablets and to make it easier for Android app programmers to support multiple devices.

But re-integrating the Android browser with WebKit will take time--and it requires more than just Google's Chrome programmers working with Google's Android browser programmers. WebKit began as an Apple project spawned from the earlier KHTML browser engine used in the KDE interface for Linux, so other developers are involved.

One potential benefit to Google's move is a more mature mobile browser for others. Safari on iOS uses WebKit, and so do browsers for new BlackBerry phones, Samsung Bada phones, Hewlett-Packard's ill-fated WebOS, and more. Open-source software makes sharing software easier, and Google's goals with browsers are not so much to profit directly from its own product as to improve browsing in general so the Web becomes more powerful.

Google sometimes keeps variations of open-source projects in-house. The Linux kernel used in Android, for example, is fairly detached from the mainstream Linux kernel project maintained by Linus Torvalds. That doesn't violate any laws and gives Google the ability to control its own destiny a bit better, but as a practical matter, the open-source philosophy works better when projects aren't fragmented and out of sync.

It's a two-way road, too: Google should have an easier time incorporating others' changes into the Android browser. If Apple comes up with a clever CSS feature, for example, it'll be less effort for Google to incorporate it.

Thus, overall, Google's WebKit move with its Android browser seems helpful for Web developers, browser makers, and Android users. And one last point: there's no doubt that Google, which is sensitive to branding issues, would love to see that Chrome icon publicized on millions of smartphones.