Plagued by Chrome crashes on your iPhone? Google's got a fix

An overhaul of Google's browser cuts crashes 70 percent, boosts performance -- and shows the difficulties of writing software under Apple's rules.

Google Chrome lapel pin

A Google Chrome lapel pin

Stephen Shankland/CNET

If you're like a lot of iPhone customers who use Chrome, there's one gripe at the top of your list: crashes. Go to the wrong website, and Google's browser disappears from underneath your fingertips, forcing you to restart the app.

"Our biggest criticism has been 'This app crashes a lot,'" said Abdel Karim Mardini, the Google product manager who leads work on Chrome for Apple's iOS-powered devices, the iPad and iPhone. But Google's new Chrome 48, scheduled to arrive today, cuts crashes by 70 percent, he said.

The new Chrome version also is faster at handling complex and interactive Web pages and at scrolling thanks to an extensive rewrite of the browser, Mardini added. "This is the single biggest change we've done to the product since we launched it," back in June 2012, he said.

Performance and stability are key to Google's ability to persuade you to use its browser on iPhones and iPads instead of the built-in default, Apple's Safari. Most people get things done on their phone with apps -- Instagram for photo sharing, Kindle for reading books, Spotify for streaming music, for example. Browsers, though, remain essential for looking up information and for interacting with companies whose apps you may not want to install.

Improving Chrome also is important for fueling Google's expansion into very different businesses. More than a billion people use Chrome, sending a flood of queries to Google's search service and thereby generating search-ad revenue. That money funds core Google projects such as Android and Gmail along with the broader ambitions of Mountain View, California-based parent company Alphabet -- self-driving cars, longevity research, high-speed gigabit broadband service, Dropcam security cameras and package delivery drones.

For such a crucial product, the most used browser in the world today according to analytics firm StatCounter, you'd think Google programmers would be in firm control. For the versions of Chrome that run on Windows computers, Macs, and phones and tablets powered by Google's Android operating system, they are. But on iPhones and iPads, Google actually relies on Apple to supply a crucial core part of Chrome -- against its preferences.

Since 2012, Google's Chrome has risen to become the most-used browser on phones and tablets. StatCounter bases its measurements on the number of pages loaded on a network of 3 million websites globally.


To understand why, bear with us for a moment for an explanation of how a browser works.

When a browser loads a Web page, a core component called the renderer digests the page's programming instructions and arranges all the text, photos, buttons and other elements on your screen. But under Apple's rules for iOS devices, programmers are only allowed to use Apple's renderer. When Google wants to fix a bug or support a new Web technology, it has to wait for Apple to do so.

"The number one wish list would be to allow browsers to ship their own rendering engine," Mardini said.

Google is constrained by Apple's choices, he said. "It doesn't seem like browsers are as important to them as they are to Google or to the mobile Web in general," and Apple has "much more of a native app mindset," in which phone users access online services through downloaded programs instead of websites.

Apple didn't respond to a request for comment.

But Apple has improved its core browser software, and that's why Google was able to make Chrome faster and more stable. Apple's new renderer, introduced with iOS 8 in 2014, speeds Chrome and lets Google isolate problematic websites so a crash shows an "Aw, Snap!" error message instead of bringing down the entire Chrome app.

"Performance and stability are the two biggest wins," Mardini said. "Users will really really feel it."

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