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Three cheers for Android browser competition

There are reasons iOS and Windows RT hobble third-party browsers, but CNET's Stephen Shankland prefers the open approach Google takes with Android.

Firefox, back with a new native interface, now runs again on Android tablets with the beta of version 15.
Firefox, back with a new native interface, now runs again on Android tablets with the beta of version 15.
Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

This morning, I installed the Firefox 15 beta on my two favored Android devices: a Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone and an Asus Nexus 7 tablet.

Big deal, you say. Installing a browser. Ho-hum.

It shouldn't be a big deal, but it is -- because you can't install Firefox on an iPhone, an iPad, or a forthcoming Windows RT tablet.

But on Android, Google has chosen to let any other browser compete directly against its own. For that reason, I regularly use Opera Mini and Opera Mobile alongside Google's Chrome. The Dolphin Browser HD, installed more than 10 million times, is another widely used option.

Kudos to Google for not being afraid of competition.

Google could easily have banned other browsers from Android or raised significant barriers the way Apple and Microsoft have chosen to do.

Google is certainly working hard to ensure Chrome's success, pushing the browser hard enough that the company sometimes raises rivals' hackles. For example, try to load the Chrome-promoting browser-based art project with the Tate Modern museum, This Exquisite Forest, and non-Chrome browser users will see an explanatory YouTube video and a message: "This site has features your browser may not support. Please try Google Chrome."

That's the kind of thing that harkens back to the bad old days of the last-generation browser wars of the 1990s between Internet Explorer and Netscape, when the Web was plagued with incompatible Web sites and some publishers would proclaim their loyalty to one faction or another. "Ah the 'Made for IE6' badge for a new generation," tweeted Mozilla Product Manager Dave Mason upon seeing the message.

On Android at least the other browsers have a fighting chance. The European Union favors the browser choice of the personal-computer market.

On iOS, browsers must use an Apple-supplied version of the WebKit browser engine to process and display Web pages. Not only that, but that UIWebView version of WebKit, which third-party software must use, is slower when it comes to running JavaScript programs than the WebKit in Apple's own Safari.

And on Microsoft's forthcoming Windows RT, the version of Windows for the ARM processors that dominate the mobile device market today, other browsers don't get access to the same deeper hardware controls that Internet Explorer gets.

Firefox and other non-IE browsers on Windows RT don't get the same privileges that Internet Explorer gets.

In both cases, there are security and user-experience reasons that can justify Apple's and Microsoft's choices to restrict third-party browsers. The effect, though, is to hamper those browsers' abilities.

The difficulties of hobbled browsers
Google nonetheless decided to build Chrome on iOS, and Mozilla has begun an iOS browser experiment called Junior. But building a browser under such circumstances has challenges.

Differentiation from Safari still is possible; for example, Chrome has its distinctive tabs-on-top look, has Google's SPDY technology for boosting Web performance, and synchronizes tabs, bookmarks, and other settings through people's Google accounts.

"Chrome for iOS has some pretty major technical restrictions imposed by the App Store, such as the requirement to use the built-in UIWebView for rendering, no V8, and a single-process model," said team member Mike Pinkerton in a mailing list message. V8 is Chrome's JavaScript engine, and a single-process model means that Google had to drop its approach of isolating tabs in separate memory compartments. He also listed areas where Google was able to bring some of its Chrome technology, though.

Peter Kasting, another Chrome member, was more specific in a comment in a discussion about unflattering JavaScript benchmarks for Chrome on iOS.

Chrome for iOS doesn't use Chrome's usual browser engine for things like processing JavaScript and HTML, but it does use Chrome's network abilities, including support for SPDY for faster Web response.
Chrome for iOS doesn't use Chrome's usual browser engine for things like processing JavaScript and HTML, but it does use Chrome's network abilities, including support for SPDY for faster Web response. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

"We support aggressive prefetching, especially for the omnibox [Chrome's combination search and Web address box] and top search results, which really does have truly enormous effects on actual usage that are harder to capture in a benchmark," Kasting said.

But it's not using all of Chrome -- which is why visiting This Exquisite Forest works in Chrome for Android but gives the warning message with Chrome for iOS.

It's a problem that Mozilla's Robert O'Callahan mentioned. "I'm surprised you'd risk dilution of Chrome's brand this way. There's going to be plenty of confusion among Web developers and users about what 'Chrome' means. Lots of features that are 'in Chrome' won't be in iOS Chrome. Some sites that 'work in Chrome' won't work in iOS Chrome," he said.

Kasting acknowledged the problem in his response.

"The Web developer fragmentation effect has definitely been a real concern, and not everyone on the team has felt like the overall benefits of iOS Chrome outweigh the costs," he said.

Another challenge: on iOS, third-party browsers can't be set as the default browser, so for example opening a Web address in an e-mail requires copying and pasting if you don't want to use Safari.

Firefox on Android
Even where full-power third-party browsers are allowed, it's not easy. Mozilla had to restart its Firefox on Android project to use a faster native interface, and it's still used in vanishingly small numbers because it's not preinstalled.

The overhauled version only recently arrived on Android phones, and it's only in beta on Android tablets, but I like it so far. It loads pages fast, with my combination of an unscientific eye and Nexus 7 tablet. It pans and zooms smoothly. It pulled my browsing history in after a sync and generally got out of my way. Some problems, though: It needs user multi-tab interface work, and it crashed when I tried to log into Flickr.

So no, it's not perfect. But it's real, and at least Google gives these other browsers a chance.

I suspect that Google's approach won't just be to the benefit of Opera, Mozilla, Dolphin, Maxthon Mobile, UC Browser, and all the rest that.

Given the vigorous the browser market's present vigor, I think Chrome will benefit from the competition, too.