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Google accelerates Android browser updates with mobile Chrome

Long-term plan, says Google, is to make Chrome the standard browser on Android

Google's launch today of Chrome for Android may be a move to accelerate the pace of browser updates, an analyst said. Read our Chrome for Android review.

"Google's playing catch-up here," said Al Hilwa of IDC. "Although both the stock Android and Chrome browsers are WebKit-derived, [the former] is fundamentally behind the times compared to what others, like Microsoft with IE9 on Metro, are doing. The stock Android browser needs much more hardware acceleration, for example, and better support for HTML5."

Google can get those advanced features into Android users hands faster with Chrome, said Hilwa, because the new browser -- currently offered as a beta -- is essentially the same browser as the desktop edition that Google updates every six-to-eight weeks.

Shifting to Chrome and its faster-paced release schedule sidesteps the less-frequent system updates that Google now offers Android users to freshen the stock Android browser. Chrome on Android is an app available on the Android Market, and so uses that e-store's built-in update mechanism.

In the months since Google last updated Android -- and the Android browser -- to version 4.0 last October, the company has shipped Chrome 15 and Chrome 16 to its "stable" channel of Chrome for the desktop, and many more interim security updates. If Google keeps to its typical pace, it will ship Chrome 17 within the next week or so.

Chrome also gives Google a credible rival to the third-party browsers that now crowd the Market, including those from Opera Software and Mozilla.

According to Web metrics company Net Applications, the Android stock browser accounted for 18% of all browsers run on mobile devices last month, Opera Mini, which does not run on Apple's iOS, had a 20% share.

Version 4.0 of the Android browser, which debuted alongside Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich, in mid-October, 2011, accounted for nearly all of Google's share.

Chrome for Android syncs bookmarks between smartphones, tablets and computers running Google's browser. (Image: JR Raphael.)

Even though Chrome for Android requires Ice Cream Sandwich -- that version of the OS powers a minute 1% of all Android devices now in use -- Google has big plans for the browser.

"Right now, our focus is on making Chrome for Android Beta available to Android 4.0 phone/tablet users to gather initial feedback.... [But] our long-term plan is for Chrome to become the standard browser on Android 4.0 and above," said a Google spokeswoman in an email reply to questions Tuesday.

IDC's Hilwa also applauded other features of Chrome on Android, including synchronization of that browser with desktop editions running on, say, notebook and desktops. "[Synchronization] is an important feature, and this is definitely a sign of things to come on how Android owners will use multiple devices," said Hilwa.

Although the stock Android browser offers some sync -- it automatically updates bookmarks with a user's copies of Chrome -- the beta of Chrome for Android also syncs open tabs and auto-complete suggestions with Chrome on a computer.

Users can install the Chrome for Android beta without disturbing the stock Android browser, but that may change, the Google spokeswoman hinted, saying, "It currently does not replace your Android browser."

Bloggers were upbeat about the new browser, with many remarking that Google had finally married its desktop and mobile user base.

"Chrome for Android is polished, slick, and gives even the stock Ice Cream Sandwich browser -- which itself was a huge leap forward from Android browsers of the past -- a run for its money," said Computerworld's Android expert, JR Raphael. "In many ways, it feels like something that should have been integrated into Ice Cream Sandwich from the start."

Hilwa suspects that Google may also want to consolidate its browser platform to benefit its real bottom line: advertising. "I wonder how much they want to integrate their ad networks between desktop and mobile," he said. "We haven't heard much about that."

Google launched desktop Chrome in September 2008. Since then, the browser has, depending on the source, climbed to third or even second place in popularity.

Chrome for Android is based on Chrome 16.0.915.75 on the desktop, a version that has yet to appear as an update for personal computers.

Chrome for Android requires a smartphone or tablet running Android 4.0, and can be downloaded by users in the U.S., Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Spain and the U.K.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected] .

See more articles by Gregg Keizer .

Read more about browsers in Computerworld's Browsers Topic Center.

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