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Coming soon: Chrome for iPhone & iPad

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Google’s(s goog) Chrome browser is assumed to be coming for Apple’s(s aapl) iPhone, iPad and iPod touch devices by at least one analyst group. On Tuesday, Macquarie (USA) Equities Research released a lengthy note explaining what this would mean for both companies, suggesting it could reduce the amount of money Google pays to Apple for the use of Google searches in the native iOS Safari browser. Given the growth of iOS devices sales and usage, the reduction in such payments could be meaningful says Macquarie, if users transition from Safari to Chrome on iOS.

While the analysis of such an outcome makes sense, there’s a key problem that history has already proven true: Odds of a third-party browser on iOS becoming a major success are very limited at best.

Why? Because although Apple now allows such browsers — it originally didn’t — none of them can be set as the default browser, meaning all links in emails, texts or other apps will always open in Safari, regardless of what other browsers are installed. That’s a big usability barrier that gives Safari a competitive advantage on iOS, no matter how great Chrome is. Ironically, Google (as well as Mozilla) are grumbling about Microsoft(s msft) giving its own Internet Explorer an advantage on Windows 8 as well.

Macquarie’s note suggests that Chrome for iOS will get approved this quarter and is likely to have such limitations. I can’t speak to the timing, but I have zero doubt that the current default browser limitation will apply to a version of Chrome on Apple devices, just as it does with Dolphin HD, Opera and others.

Apple has always had full control of its smartphones and tablets; it’s one of the platforms selling points and there’s simply no reason to think that’s going to change. And while Chrome for Android can sync bookmarks with its desktop counterpart, so too can Safari between its mobile and desktop versions. The mobile version of Chrome now shows open desktop tabs as well, but there’s no reason Apple can’t add such functionality through its iCloud service.

Much of Macquarie’s analysis hinges on the believe that mobile browser wars are beginning, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the expectation that Google will gain a large benefit from releasing Chrome on iOS is based on how Google has done in the desktop browser wars and that’s a huge mistake in my opinion. The desktop paradigm is decades old, and to assume the mobile market will simply follow the same path is an error in judgment. Chrome for iOS may indeed appear and some few will use it, but Google isn’t likely to gain much. Instead, users are best poised to get a benefit as some of the better features in Chrome could find their way in future versions of mobile Safari.

Thumbnail image courtesy of MyDroidWorld

18 Responses to “Coming soon: Chrome for iPhone & iPad”

  1. Greg Schwartz

    What this article (and all the comments so far) fail to mention is that any third-party browser for iOS right now is just a “reskinning” of Safari. Apple doesn’t allow any third party HTML rendering engines on iOS, so everyone has to use Safari’s Webkit rendering engine in their browser. Chrome on iOS would have to do the same thing. Sure, Google could add syncing and other features (as other third-party browsers do) to differentiate Chrome from others, but at it’s heart, it still has to use the same engine as Safari. Opera gets around this (sort of) by essentially “streaming” the web pages from their servers, but it’s an exception…

    • Given that Chrome is Webkit-based also, I think the bigger issue would be the JavaScript engine. Google couldn’t use its V8 engine, nor would it be able to use Apple’s Nitro, which is reserved for mobile Safari IIRC.

  2. deeceefar2

    It is absolutely anti-competitive, however I’m not sure they satisfy any regulatory conditions to exert pressure on them. Apple better hope that other tablets begin to compete or it will have regulatory issues on its hands. Perhaps android was the best thing for their profit margins, allowing to exist in a two platform world and stave off regulatory issues for the short term.

    • deeceefar2

      And the rest of my comment that got cut off during login…

      So why move Chrome to iOS? This is a preemptive move by Google. Currently Apple has absolute control over their app ecosystem, but that hinges on one thing the lack of competing web app market places. Currently Apple has been happy to play along with the browser improvements and is actively adding new features to their browsers, but they don’t really have any particular interest in doing so. They don’t derive any revenue from the browser usage, and as things are beginning to shift back toward web apps and emerging standards compete against native app features they are going to reach a crossroads very soon. Do they keep supporting innovative features in the browser that allow developers to parallel native features outside the app ecosystem?

      Google has a significant interest in ensuring they maintain access to the cutting edge features of the emerging browser standards so they can leverage the browser as a gateway to their customers even on Apple’s platform. With the divide between Google and Apple growing, it makes since for Google to get their trojan horse into Apple’s cash cow before Apple’s priorities shift. For example Google could release Google Maps as a web app as soon as Apple releases their new mapping system.

      So this move seems inevitable to me, Google has to do it, and hopefully if Apple prevents them from innovating in this space. Google can rely on regulatory pressure to ensure it happens because it is bad for consumers if Apple does not allow people to innovate in the browser space.

      As to why chrome would be successful on iOS because it will be the fastest. Google will spare no resources in making Chrome for iOS the fastest they possibly can and will consistently add new web standards because this will become a significant source of revenue for them. Aside from that they can use Chrome as a platform across all computers and mobile devices to create a second tier of apps and services outside of the native platform environments.

  3. Devin Martinez

    I’ve been using the GNex for a while now along with chrome, but I find safari to be a lot better, for that matter I find safari to run better then any browser I’ve used on android. I don’t see any reason for iOS to make any browser besides safari default

  4. Isn’t there a possibility that the other browser makers plan to “pull an Opera” (as Mozilla and now Google are doing re. WinRT) and demand that Apple offer the ability to run as the default browser for new links? The inbuilt browser would still be used by apps so it wouldn’t be likely to break anything. And Apple might be willing to cede this concession to avoid too much regulatory inspection, given the precedent set by Microsoft.

    • That’s a great question and sure, anything is possible. Not likely, however. There’s a key difference in the current browser spat with Microsoft and this situation with Apple. If you don’t want to use Safari as your mobile browser, you have the choice to buy a non-iOS device. Apple controls and sells the hardware and the software. Microsoft’s licensing model means that it only controls the software across multiple hardware iterations. I don’t see how a court can tell Apple what its device can or can’t do. It’s like suing Ford because it doesn’t offer the same engine capability found in a Chevy. Probably not the best example, but I think it makes the point. ;)

      • Personally I think a closer car analogy would be if there’s two competing toll-road providers, and only Fords can use one, but only Chevrolets can use the other. But anyway! :)

        What you say is true, but given Apple’s massive market share (particularly in tablets) similar questions could be asked of them, as they were of 90s-era Microsoft. After all, even back then, you did (in theory) have choices… you could use a Mac, or Linux, or even OS/2 (!)

        I don’t personally think it will happen immediately, but I wouldn’t rule it out either. Nobody expected them to give in on allowing third-party browsers in the first place, even if they have done so in a way that limits their functionality.

        What happens with WinRT may yet set a precedent.

        • Great points and I like your analogy better! ;) Yup, we’ll have to see what happens with WinRT and the browsers; it could be telling but I’m still leaning towards less legal pressure on Apple for iOS as a monopoly.

      • Shivesh Vishwanathan

        One difference between the car or televisions and phones is that phone is also a platform. Restricting choices in browsers seems more like car companies taking exception to people installing any GPS device they want on their car. Not allowing a new engine is one thing – engine is an ‘integral’ part of the car. Same goes for TV guide interface – it is integral to the TV.

        I don’t think browser is an integral part of a device. Apple might actually run into some difficulties if it defines what is ‘integral’ too narrowly?

  5. Cab Driver Jim

    Doesn’t this seem a bit anti-competitive on Apple’s part? “Sure, you can install any browser you want! You just can’t use it!” It is, afterall, quite possible to change default browser in iOS. However, today, changing the default browser in iOS voids the warranty. Apple could allow Google Chrome to make itself the default browser if they chose to do so. Or Apple could provide a tool to modify default applications in their app store. Most browsers already support being setup as the default browser in iOS, as well, for those who are willing to void their warranty to do so.

    • I don’t see that Apple has any vested interest to allow 3rd party browsers to be the default. Sure you can jailbreak and do what you like, but why would Apple allow for Safari not to be the default?

      • > why would Apple allow for Safari not to be the default?

        Due to public and/or regulatory pressure? As you mentioned, they did not allow third-party browsers in the past, but they allow that now. I doubt that they voluntarily decided to allow third-party browsers out of the goodness of their heart. Similarly, there’s a good chance that they can be pressured to allow third-party browsers to be set as the default browser. After all, it’s the right thing to do.

        • A S, I hear you, but it’s their hardware and their software. IMO, this is no different than a television set with a proprietary guide interface. Should that TV maker be forced to use a different interface because it’s the “right thing to do”? Believe me, I’m all for choice! But I don’t see how the courts can force Apple to allow the devices it builds to do something that Apple doesn’t want them to do.