03 September 2012

Chrome for iOS – not default for good reason

Despite not being able to become the default browser like on a desktop computer, despite not being able to use its greatest asset, JavaScript speed, was launched for the iOS platform some two months ago. Since I’m a regular user of desktop Chrome, I couldn’t pass out the opportunity to see how it performs on mobile.

Overall it’s a good browser that comes with some advantages over Safari. The biggest plus is the ability to sign in with your Google account and have all your data from Chrome desktop (bookmarks, history, open tabs) synced immediately to your mobile device; you can also use auto-sign-in on Google sites for quicker access – it’s a pain to type complex passwords on a mobile keyboard. Unfortunately missing: syncing the ‘most visited’ sites; Chrome for iOS shows only the most visited sites on the phone. You can also send pages from desktop Chrome to mobile Chrome for offline reading either via ‘Chrome-to-mobile’ or from the ‘Print’ dialog by selecting your iPhone from the list of available printers. This feature was initially launched for the Android version, but it works on iOS as well.

Even if most people complained it cannot match Safari’s rendering speed, in day-to-day use I didn’t feel much of a difference between them. On mobile I suspect the network speed and bandwidth is more of a limiting factor for page loading that the actual rendering on the device. Also, Chrome employs a couple of techniques to compensate for the poorer JavaScript engine, like pre-rendering and SPDY.

It features innovative tab handling, using swipe gestures to switch between tabs or to close a tab. You can manage the bookmarks from the ‘new tab’ page in an interface very similar to a previous experiment in desktop Chrome; it was discontinued there, but resurfaced now in the mobile version. While desktop browser have all by eliminated the progress bar shown during page load (it still survives in mobile Safari), Chrome for iOS brings it back in the form of a neon-blue line under the Omnibox – a nice touch in my opinion, also found in the Google Search app for iOS. The only choice I don’t like design-wise though is that the address bar doesn’t automatically hide when it’s not used like in Safari; it takes up a lot of space, especially in landscape mode.

And while I’m getting to the things I don’t appreciate, I can’t help notice how Chrome doesn’t give you the option to block third-party cookies. That might not seem like a big deal, but if you weight in the fact that Google was caught – and fined – for not respecting this very same privacy option in mobile Safari, you can’t help but wonder if Chrome for iOS exist for this single reason: to offer an alternative browser that can track you across the sites you visit – and you can’t do much about it! And here is a reason I wouldn’t use Chrome as my default browser even if Apple would allow that. By the way, I hear Mozilla is pulling its attempt at a iOS browser from the App Store – pretty reasonable, as they don’t have a similar monetary incentive to keep it going.

  • Chrome iOS tab management
  • Chrome iOS tab switching
  • Chrome iOS edit bookmarks
  • Chrome iOS privacy options for cookies
  • Chrome iOS print-to-phone jobs

But the way I see it, the greatest problem Chrome faces on the iPhone – and Google along with it – is the fact that people just don’t use the browser that much on a smartphone. I’m overgeneralizing from my own experience here, but I access online services on the desktop through a browser, but on the iPhone I mostly use apps. Like grudgingly acknowledged recently, native apps provide a richer and faster experience than the mobile web. I use even Google services through native the Mail and Calendar apps, for Google Reader I have Newsify, for finding places I go to the native Maps app. Less browsing equals less tracking data for Google, less ads displayed and ultimately less money in the one market with solid growth. Launching their own mobile OS will most likely prove one of the smartest thing Google has done strategically – besides buying YouTube – because being the default search engine on another platform is neither guaranteed, nor as important as it was on the desktop.

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