Google experiments with choice-defying Android search box • The Register


Analysis Google has been spotted testing web technology that a former staff member says will further undermine the already often overlooked choices people make about their browsers.

Alex Russell, who joined Microsoft in June as Partner Program Manager on Edge after more than 12 years as a senior engineer at Google, noted on Twitter the appearance of WebLayer.

Web layer, as Google describes it, is “a high level integration API to support the creation of a browser”. It is a bit like WebView on steroids. WebView is an API in Android and iOS for presenting web content in a native application and forms the basis of WebView in-app (IAB) browsers implemented in apps like Facebook, Microsoft Bing Search, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat.

“I can’t express how deeply disappointed I am with the Googlers who let this happen,” Russell wrote. “Google search pulls a Facebook. What massive, destructive, self-sustaining shit.”

Or rather, Google is just trying out Facebook’s captive browser approach to see how that feels.

“This [has] not launched and is an experience that has lasted for over a year for a small percentage of users, ”said André Bandarra, developer advocate at Google, in response to Russell’s concern. “We have looked at the differences between APIs and work is underway to close the gap. We are also looking at what would be needed with respect to documents. “

Is it terrible for privacy? For web developers? For users? Yes Yes Yes

The result, according to Russell, is that when using WebLayer, the Android Google Search app – the contractually mandated search widget adjacent to Android home screens and known as AGSA or AGA – forgets about it. User login status, permissions, extensions and privacy settings. . And given that Android is present on more than 2 billion devices, this change could affect a large number of people without their knowledge or consent if it is deployed on a large scale.

“Is it terrible for confidentiality? For web developers? For users? “Russel demand. “Yes Yes Yes.”

And that does not mean that the current formulation of AGSA, which is based on Chrome custom tabs (CCT), introduced earlier this year to fill in the gaps in WebViews, is also ideal. Russell claims that he partially respects user choice but still ignores user preferences.

Either way, you may think that a search result you got through AGSA, or Google go moreover, will load in the browser of your choice when you click on it. In the current incarnation of AGSA, this is only true if you’ve chosen Chrome as your default browser on Android.

And under WebLayer, you get a separate, WebView-like, Chrome-based pseudo-browser that’s separate from the one chosen as the default device – at least that’s how this experimental technology looks right now.

It’s like Google is going backwards in terms of the browsing experience on Android. Essentially right now if you open a link from the Android search widget it’s still handled by Chrome with seemingly some user preferences being ignored, and in the WebLayer experience even that doesn’t happen: links open in a separate pseudo-browser from your device. browsers and their settings.

As Russell explained to The register, it is not really a browser because WebLayer does not handle normal browsing on the device and you cannot install it as a browser. And the problem – regardless of user choice – is similar for other browser plumbing APIs like WebView and CCT.

The choice of browser is actually quite substantial, or at least it has been for regulators in the past. Recall that from 2001 to 2011, Microsoft was obliged, due to its antitrust regulation consent decree, to provide Windows users with the choice of browser, and from 2009 to 2014, in the EU, it presented to users a browser choice screen.

Browser choice is also important for publishers, said Russell, because the non-standard behavior of WebLayer can adversely affect login rates, hamper autofill forms used for purchase and checkout flows, interrupt functionality of WebLayer. re-engagement such as installing PWA and enabling push notification, and interfering with data used to make ads effective, such as placement assignment.

The problem is that while you, as a mobile device user, may have set a preferred default browser, that choice is not honored by AGSA or by apps that create a browser. Franken-Navigator from APIs such as WebLayer, WebView or CCT.

These concerns are not new to Russell, who has spent years championing the web as a platform, and in April, while still at Google, pointed out The problems Apple’s browser restrictions are taking their toll on the web ecosystem.

But Russell isn’t alone in saying browser makers continue to interfere with user choice. Web developers have complained for years about Apple’s insistence that all iOS browsers run WebKit under the hood and how its disinterest in implementing certain web APIs has allowed web applications to fail. not compete with native applications. And they did so despite Apple’s claim over antitrust complaints that those who don’t like App Store rules can compete by building web apps.

“The mobile web is only a pale shadow of its potential, as the vector of progress that has generated steady gains for two decades has silently eroded to the benefit of native application platforms and developers,” Russell said in a statement. blog post in July. “These attacks on the commons are rooted in a shared disrespect for the sanctity of user choice, substituting the agenda of application and operating system developers for the mediation of a champion of the user.”

The register asked Google if anyone wanted to comment, but we got no response.

Microsoft could do better here, too. The presumably reformed monopoly has modified Windows 11 to make it more difficult to switch browsers. It made Edge the default for Windows 11 during installation and will use Edge unless the user selects a different browser to handle specific file types and links. Windows users have the choice of a different browser, but making that choice requires more effort than before. ®

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