Skip to main content

Why Chrome not shipping with Android 4.4 might not be a bad thing

By Jason Grigsby

Published on November 22nd, 2013


Maximiliano Firtman broke the news a couple days ago that Android 4.4 (Kit Kat) will not ship to manufacturers with a browser:

At first blush, this seems like a bad thing especially for those of us who have been waiting so long for the Android browser to die and Chrome to take its place. However, I think this may actually be good news.

The first thing to keep in mind is that what ships to carriers and manufacturers is not the same thing as what ships to the store. Android doesn’t include Google Maps by default. If you want that on the phone you’re building, you have to license the Google apps services separately from Android’s open source code.

I attended the Mobile Summit during Google I/O earlier this year. One of the questions we asked was when will Chrome be the default browser for Android. The answer was that couldn’t say precisely because the handset manufacturer would have a say in the matter.

This has been one of Google’s biggest challenges with Android is the speed at which handset manufacturers adopt new versions of Android (if they ever do). Over the last year or so, Google has developed a strategy for addressing this problem.

Ron Amadeo wrote a great article for Ars Technica earlier this year that outlined how Google is now side-stepping the carriers and OEMs. In the article he describes how Google is using its Google Play Services which it licenses to OEMs as a way to keep applications on a frequent update cycle.

Google Play Services takes care of lower-level APIs and background services, and the other part of Google’s fragmentation takedown plan involves the Play Store. Google has been on a multi-year mission to decouple just about every non-system app from the OS for easy updating on the Play Store.

With that in mind, let’s go back to the question of Chrome. The slow pace of carrier and handset updates is the complete opposite of Chrome’s frequent release cycle. The Chrome team prides itself on the frequent releases and touts how they’re bringing that same release cycle to mobile.

If Google released Android 4.4 to carriers and handset manufacturers with Chrome installed, they would have no control over when Chrome is updated. By bundling it with Google services that the handset manufacturers sign up for and license, Google controls the app and how frequently it updates.

The big question is whether or not when a handset manufacturer signs up for Google services if Google forces the manufacturer to ship Chrome as the default browser. Because they dictate the terms of licensing of Google’s proprietary services and apps, I don’t see any reason why Google would put that condition on usage.

Yes, there is the potential that more devices will come out with browsers that aren’t using Chrome. But those are the Android-derived devices that don’t play in the Google apps space regardless. We’re talking about the Android devices in China or forks like the Amazon Kindle. It was unlikely they would use Chrome anyways so at least when they ship a browser, we’ll know it is something different.

But for end consumers and web developers, this seems like the best possible scenario. If you buy a phone that utilizes all the Google services we think of on Android (e.g., Google Maps, Gmail, Calendar, etc.), then you’ll get Chrome and I’m speculating here, but I suspect you get Chrome by default.

More importantly, you get real Chrome. The Chrome that updates every six weeks. And not a hobbled version of Chrome that would be limited by whims of the carriers and the manufacturers as to when it is updated.


KiwiTech said:

To be very frank, that’s a smart move from Google. No doubt Chrome is the best browser for mobile devices, providing it in source code of OS will take control from that particular service.
They have not provided Chrome as default browser in KitKat and what I can guess is they will not provide it with upcoming Android versions.

Whereskarlo said:

Good points. However, from all my Android devices I recall that pre-installed apps that come bundled with the OS CAN receive updates from the Play Store. They just cannot be completely uninstalled but only reverted to their original version.

That means that bundling Chrome with Android will not result in a slower update cycle because a bundled app can update even if the manufacturer doesn’t update the os.

Replies to Whereskarlo

Jason Grigsby (Article Author ) replied:

Hi Karl,

It is important to distinguish between what is in Android’s open source code and what Google licenses. That’s what we’re talking about here. Your pre-installed apps on your Android devices tell us little about that because by the time you get the device, the OEM has chosen whether they are going to license Google apps or not. I highly recommend the Ars Technica article I linked to for background on the distinction.


zibrasoft said:

This information means little to the end users as they already have various third party browsers to download from the “Google” Play Store, but it proves that Google is trying to get a grip on Android.