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Android Browser Countdown

By Jason Grigsby

Published on May 2nd, 2013


Android’s poor browser has been the thorn in side of mobile web developers for quite some time. Dion Almaer once said that “Android WebKit is the closest thing to being the IE6 of mobile development”.

I agree. Back in 2011, I wrote that Google needed to step up. Thankfully, they have. Chrome for Mobile is a great browser.

But Chrome for Mobile is still a small percentage of what people on Android devices are using. A lot of this has to do with the fact that older versions of Android that cannot run Chrome still account for 44.1% of Android’s installed base.

Pie chart of Android versions. Versions below 4.0 are 44.1%

Last month at the Breaking Development conference, many of the speakers talked about large installed base of Android browsers as being an impediment to pushing the web forward on mobile. The discussion reminded me of the efforts that the web community undertook to convince users to move off of IE6.

Web developers started encouraging users to upgrade to a newer version. Microsoft helped out by creating the IE6 Countdown web site which helped web developers figure out when IE6’s market share had gotten low enough that they no longer had to worry about it.

Microsoft and others created banners and warnings that encouraged people to install newer, more standards-compliant browsers.

Microsoft supplied warning bar for an out of date version of IE

I’ve thought a few times about how we should encourage Android users to upgrade their browsers, but in this case, there is no way for them to update to a new version of the Android browser and they can’t install Chrome on any device not running Android 4.x.

But while discussing this at Breaking Development, it was pointed out to me that even if people cannot update their browser to Chrome, many do have other options. They can install Opera Mobile or Firefox.

Maybe it is time to change our mindset towards the Android 2.x Browsers and instead of working around its many limitations, perhaps we should actively encourage people to switch to a better browser.

What do you think?


Matt Gifford said:

Totally agree with this. I think it’s actually worse than IE 6, because there are so many different Android Browsers out there. Even between Galaxy S variants, we’ve seen significant differences.

One advantage we have in this situation is that it’s fairly easy to change the default browser in Android (unlike in some other OSes).

Micah said:

You’re fighting against 2-year carrier contracts, high phone costs and complacent users. Any effort I make as a developer to promote people to use Opera Mobile or Firefox on Gingerbread will make no blip on these stats. (BTW, I love using Firefox on my 2.3.5 Android phone, such a breath of fresh air. Can’t wait for the new Opera Mobile to upgrade to Blink which essentially gives us Chrome on legacy Android phones)

The real answer is for this wave of 2-year contract users to upgrade early or upgrade as soon as their contract is up. Many will continue to use Gingerbread beyond that expiration because, as sorry as it sounds, Android users don’t want to pay $199 + fees + taxes for an Android phone. Even that is too much in a world where these same people are used to $399 Netbooks, $500+ Windows laptops with tons of crapware, $200 Amazon Kindle Fire, and other bad price expectations on technology prices.

The better answer to this problem is education. Good technology, at least in 2013, should cost a minimum of $1000 for full desktop/laptop computers and $400-600 for smartphones. We are just too used to cheap alternatives.

Replies to Micah

Jason Grigsby (Article Author ) replied:

@micah I hear everything you’re saying, but still read what you wrote as an argument for trying to convince users to change browsers, not an argument against it. 🙂

Replies to Jason Grigsby
Stephanie Rieger replied:

Another thing to consider is why the manufacturer chose 2.3 to begin with.

If the device was of the 2.3 generation, then it’s about 2-3 years old. If it was made post-2.3 then chances are 2.3 was specifically chosen by the manufacturer because it runs better on slower processors. This means the device is probably cheap or “special” in some other way that would justify launching with an older OS (similar to Google Glass running ICS and apparently using the same chipset as the original Kindle Fire…chances are ICS is better suited to that chipset than the more powerful Jelly Bean would be, and due to reasons like battery life, they might not have been able to up the chipset…[just a guess on my part reading between the lines but this is how these things often work]).

If both of those scenarios are the case, then these devices will run slower with a newer version of Android, which wouldn’t be ideal for the people we’ve just convinced to upgrade. (e.g. A fried of ours upgraded a Sony Ericsson X10 a while back and promptly regretted it due to massive latency. Even our more powerful Galaxy SII when upgraded to the next version ran slow.).

And that’s assuming upgrade is even possible. Some upgrades have been held back by OEMs for the very reason that it would have resulted in a suboptimal experience.

Not suggesting this applies to 100% of people, but if it’s even 50%, that greatly reduces the potential upgrade pool.

Micah said:

@Jason I’m taking a more practical look at the problem. 🙂

I *wish* talking to each and every individual Android user would produce these results quickly, but I think practically it will be another calendar year before we really see the right drop in Gingerbread. Just as this last Christmas the amount of Gingerbread users dropped around 10-15%,

I think by this time next year we’ll be seeing Gingerbread users drop another 15-20% since 2013 is the end of the 2-year cycle for these Android phones.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t promote switching, we absolutely should, but I don’t think this will go very far unfortunately. This is mostly a battle against time and poor price expectations. :-/

Matthew Robb said:

I don’t see how Google can afford to make Chrome Frame but it can’t afford to figure out how to auto update old Android Browsers to something more modern. They have the power to do this, I don’t accept any explanations I have heard yet.

Tyler Sticka said:

Compared to the time it took us to get IE6 (mostly) off our industry’s radar, waiting for 2-year phone cycles to whittle down the Android browser’s market share seems almost speedy. If we can accelerate that process (even modestly) by encouraging adoption of Opera Mobile, Firefox, etc., even better.

Jiří Petruželka said:

As more of an end-user: I’m not surprised, on the contrary Google’s android browser is surprisingly buggy. Read tons of complaints. I myself was forced to full factory reset twice thanks to Chrome breaking my whole phone, restarts didn’t help. Compared other browsers and ICS native turned the best, so can imagine this also be the reason for the situation not to change.