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Chrome arrives (crippled) on iOS. Even so, it becomes the #1 free app in the App Store within a day

June 30, 2012

The stable version of Chrome has finally arrived on the Play Store a couple of days ago, but Google has also made Chrome available for the iOS platform the next day.

Within a day, Chrome for iOS managed to become the most installed application in Apple’s store. This probably surprised some, but considering that Chrome is now the most popular browser in the world (not counting IE7, IE8 and IE9 in aggregate), and has  310 million users, it’s guaranteed to have a lot of Apple users who also love using Chrome, so they wanted to try it out as soon as possible.

Unfortunately for iOS users interested in Chrome, they get to experience once again how Apple’s restrictions on iOS can hurt them. First off, Apple doesn’t allow any third party application, including other browsers, to become the “default” app on iOS, even though the option would be a huge benefit for many users who prefer using other apps instead of Apple’s products. Some good examples that come in mind are Gmail, now Chrome, and Google Maps (if Google decides to release a Maps app for iOS).

Second, and even more annoying, is that Apple doesn’t allow UIWebView (used by Chrome) to use the Nitro Javascript engine used in Safari, which can increase performance by 3x. UIWebView is Apple’s own embedded browser that can be used by developers who want to make “native” apps with Javascript instead of Objective-C.

To spell that out, they allow developers to make Javascript apps, and yet, they keep those “native” JS apps three times slower compared to how the same web app would run in the Safari browser. That’s crazy, and it makes the UIWebView useless and pointless. Apple got a lot of criticism for it last year when they introduced Nitro in Safari, because people thought, and for good reason, that Apple is just trying to slow down the Javascript apps from competing with their App Store apps.

Why is  this relevant? Because of another very annoying App Store policy, which says that third party apps can’t have similar core functionality with Apple’s own apps. This means that Chrome can’t bring its own rendering engine (which is the same Webkit that Apple uses, although Chrome’s version is usually more recent), and it also can’t bring its own V8 JavaScript engine. So Chrome (and other browsers) are forced to use whatever Apple provides them for the back-end.

All of this seems pretty anti-competitive and anti-user to me, and the DoJ should probably take a look at this. The only reason they aren’t is probably because they don’t think the problem is big enough for them to interfere. But it’s not like the Government hasn’t tried to keep Apple responsible before, with the privacy issues. Maybe it’s just an issue about public outcry. Apple usually responds to huge user outcry if it turns into a big PR problem for them.

For now, Chrome users on iOS can still use it without having an absolute terrible experience. In fact, some are even saying that Chrome feels faster than Safari. That’s because, especially on a mobile, you will not usually get very heavy Javascript pages, so you won’t feel much of a difference in experience. Plus, Chrome can pre-render the pages as soon as you start typing, and that can make it feel like the pages load faster than in Safari. There are other features that users can find very useful, such as sync with the desktop version, search in the Omnibox, tabs like on the desktop on the iPad, plus a very slick user interface.

At the very least, Google’s Chrome on iOS will be a “trojan horse” that gets iOS users hooked on Chrome, and some of them might want to switch to an Android device to experience the “real Chrome”, just like many professionals today can’t give up their Android phone because of the much better Gmail experience.