The clear sign of a front-end dev’s Android phone. My phone.

Could the Google app hold back PWAs?

’dunno if I have Chrome…

I was schooled by my sister last week. On a visit to my hometown, my sister — never without a mobile in her hand — made me realise that my view of using the web on Android was hopelessly warped by my job.

I wanted to load a site on her phone, and she handed me her Sony Xperia Z5 with the cursor in the Google search widget.

“Where’s Chrome?” I asked. She was unsure, she said she just typed into the Google search field. Always had done.

Always.


With the demise of the Android webkit browser, my dev-centric view was that web+Android equals Chrome. Of course there was “Samsung Internet”, but that was tweaked Chromium and the team was serious about devs and PWAs now. Right?

Google Analytics bares this out. The user agents they track for Android just show a big block of Chrome. But Chrome isn’t just Chrome.

My sister — although it’s the smallest possible sample — tingles a spidey-sense. How many people interact with the web on Android through the Google app alone? How do we investigate this hypothesis further?

But who cares. The Google app is essentially just a wrapper for Chrome. Except you don’t get your nice coloured URL bar or your “save to home screen” menu option, and I haven’t ever seen a PWA install dialog. I have seen notification request dialogs, but all the PWA install goodies you get through the web manifest appear to be missing.

The Google App, “Powered by Chrome”. But not Chrome. No “save to home screen” option, no PWA install dialogs.

Oh and by the way, the Sony Xperia Google widget I saw auto-inserted spaces when I was trying to type a web address (which I haven’t seen happen on the Samsung or Google launcher widgets). Try reaching an un-google-able URL through an interface like that.

At the same time, developers have been pointing out that a large amount of users also interact with the web though Android web-views as well, most notably in the Facebook in-app browser. Again, this is full strength, evergreen Chromium, but with watered down PWA capabilities — no “save to home screen”, no install banners.

Google Analytics has been differentiating Android webview from Chrome only very recently.

While it might be an oversight in the Google App, Facebook has proved again and again that they’d rather keep you in the Facebook world, so why tempt people to install apps that take you out of it? We might wait a very long time for PWA install dialogs to appear in a site visited in-app in Facebook.

But aside from Facebook, do Android users think Chrome when they think web? Or do they just type in the Google bar? To me that sounds like a question only a web developer would ask. When the multi-bar is on your home screen, why search for an app. We need some real statistics separating Chrome from Google App web use, and that seems pretty hard to come by.

Now that PWAs are a real thing (a lumpy, not quite baked thing, perhaps), I hope the Chrome team convince the Google App team to also support all of the web manifest and install features of PWAs.

Because many of us are building or planning PWAs where a big unknown chunk of potential users will miss out on the most exciting benefits of PWAs — and much of our work.