Starting today, you can install a beta channel release of Chrome for Android on any device running Android 4.0 or better. Note that it appears that you need to follow that link to get the beta channel release. Searching in the Google Play Store did not show the beta channel. The beta channel can be installed alongside the normal release channel.
The current release for the beta channel is Chrome 25, which is a significant update for the mobile version of Chrome, adding support for the new CSS Flexible Box Model syntax, dynamic viewport units (useful for responsive designs) and CSS calc(). The Android version of Chrome also gets the same updated IndexDB and CSS Filters support we looked at in the desktop release.
The beta channel for Android offers some new tricks in Chrome’s developer tools, notably “big improvements in measuring your mobile performance with the Timeline’s frames mode.” Google also says it’s easier to navigate and edit your active scripts in the revamped Sources panel.
Right now support is limited to Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) and Samsung phones running Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Mozilla is working to fix some bugs that currently prevent H.264 from working on other devices. Support for older Gingerbread and Honeycomb Android devices is still in the works.
This is the first time Mozilla has released a web browser with support for the popular H.264 codec. The company previously refused to support H.264, citing royalty and licensing concerns. Instead Mozilla touted Google’s WebM codec, which offers many of the benefits of H.264 in a royalty-free package. Unfortunately for Firefox fans WebM has failed to gain ground against H.264.
Adobe’s Flash Player plugin can also play H.264 video and, until Adobe decided to abandon Flash for Android, that was Mozilla’s solution for H.264 video in Firefox for Android.
With WebM adoption lagging and Flash for Android dead, Mozilla found itself in a bind. Some estimates claim up to 80 percent of video on the web is encoded in H.264, forcing Mozilla to choose between supporting H.264 on Android or leaving Firefox users with no way to watch video on mobile devices. Fortunately for Firefox users, Mozilla decided to be practical and support H.264.
Technically the new H.264 support is not a part of Firefox, rather the browser is tapping into Android’s underlying H.264 support to decode video. That means royalty payments are covered by hardware makers, not Mozilla.
I tested Firefox for Android’s H.264 on a Samsung Galaxy Nexus running Android 4.1 and for the most part H.264 video worked without issue. Some popular video sharing sites, however, appear to be doing OS/browser detection rather than feature detection — I’m looking at you Vimeo — which means that, even though your phone can play the video, Vimeo thinks it can’t.
Hopefully Vimeo and other sites doing the same thing will fix this soon because Mozilla is planning to bring the same H.264 support to the desktop. As with Firefox for Android, desktop Firefox won’t have its own decoder, but will rely on OS-level H.264 decoders. For end users though the result will be the same — video that just works.
Marketplace apps are only available in the newly-updated Firefox for Android 18, which is currently in the Aurora channel. To get Aurora installed on your Android phone you’ll need to be using Android 2.2 or better and make sure that the setting to allow apps from “Unknown sources” is checked. Once that’s done, head to the Aurora mobile download page and grab the latest release.
Once Aurora is installed the new Firefox Marketplace is available under the Options Menu. Choose the “Tools” item and select “Apps”. From there you’ll see a link to the Marketplace.
Given the convoluted installation and pre-beta status of Firefox 18, this release is obviously not meant for everyone. It does, however, offer developers a look at what Mozilla has been creating.
Right now the Firefox Marketplace is still rough around the edges. So far there isn’t even a way to accept payments, one of the much-touted aspects of the Marketplace. Mozilla says that payments and other common app store features like ratings and reviews are coming soon. There are plenty of free apps available already though, including Twitter, Lanyard, Todoist and quite a few games.
Installing an app from the Firefox Marketplace is as simple as clicking a button, which installs the app and adds a shortcut to the Android applications list. Mozilla has done a great job of making web-app installation indistinguishable from native apps on Android.
Firefox apps in the Android app switcher. Image: Screenshot/Webmonkey
The difference between native and web apps becomes more obvious when you start comparing speed side by side. For example Twitter from the Mozilla Marketplace is noticeably jerkier when scrolling compared to the native Twitter Android client.
It’s worth asking though, even if Firefox Marketplace apps matched native apps in performance, does you need web apps on Android?
The answer for most people is probably going to be no. However, building out the Firefox Marketplace on Android now ensures that the bugs are worked out and that there’s a smoothly functioning app store ready to go when Firefox OS officially launches.
And there are definitely some bugs and quirks in this early release, like the fact that in Android’s app switcher all Firefox Marketplace apps are labeled simply “App” rather than the name of the application, which can make finding what you’re after tricky when you have a lot of apps open at once.
The main purpose of this release is to work out exactly these types of kinks. As Mozilla Labs Engineering Manager Bill Walker writes on the Labs blog, “our goal is to collect as much real-life feedback as possible about the Marketplace’s design, usability, performance, reliability, and content.”
The latest version of Opera’s lightweight, speedy mobile browser — not to be confused with the much more full-featured Opera Mobile — adds a new feature, the “Smart Page,” for what Opera calls “social snacks.”
The new Smart Page is a social media and news aggregator, offering one-stop access to your friends’ updates from Facebook or Twitter, as well as news from the websites you visit most frequently.
Because Opera Mini proxies your internet connection through Opera’s servers, making page downloads considerably smaller and faster, the company can use the sites you’ve visited to compile what amounts to ad hoc feeds for your most visited sites. As with all things automated, the more you use Opera Mini the better your news results will be.
Opera Mini is also available for iOS and other platforms, but so far this latest version is only available on Android. An Opera spokesperson declined to comment on when other Opera Mini releases might be updated.
To see the new Smart Page feature in action, check out this video:
Amazon is once again jumping into the online mapping fray with a new Maps API for Android developers building apps for the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD tablets. While it’s just for Android developers at the moment, several of Amazon’s other APIs have started small and grown into web-wide offerings.
Like Apple’s iOS 6, Foursquare and other high-profile Google Maps defectors, the Amazon Maps API seems to exist primarily as an option for those who’d like to avoid the Google Maps API. Amazon’s announcement touts the API’s “simple migration path for developers who are already using the native Google Maps API on Android,” but neglects to mention any benefits developers might gain from dropping Google’s API.
In this early beta offering Amazon’s Maps API doesn’t have any features above and beyond Google’s API. The Amazon Maps API offers most of the same features you’ll find in the Google Maps API, including street maps, satellite images and custom overlays for landmarks and points of interest, but lacks street-view imagery, terrain maps and other features found in Google’s offering.
If you’d like to give the Amazon Maps API a try in your Android app, head on over to Amazon’s new Maps API site to request access.