Google has updated its Cloud Print service with a couple of new features aimed at making it easier to move documents from your phone or tablet to a dead tree near you.
Cloud Print, which was first introduced in 2010, is designed to make it easy to print files from Android devices (and Chromebooks). The latest version adds support for printing to a local FedEx office as well as integration with some new Canon printers that will natively support Cloud Print.
Near the bottom of Google’s announcement is another feature that’s far more useful: “printing” to your Android device. Provided you’ve installed the latest Chrome for Android Beta on your phone and are signed in to your Google account, your Android device will now appear as a destination printer in the Cloud Print dialog. Select your device and Cloud Print will send a PDF to your phone, which will then automatically open it in Chrome for Android.
While you can accomplish something similar using services like Dropbox to sync PDFs to your phone (or iTunes if you’re an iOS user), Cloud Print’s print to Android is one of the easiest, fastest ways I’ve seen to get just about any file or webpage to a phone.
The only catch is that, as with the Chrome for Android beta, you’ll need to have Android 4 or better installed on your phone or tablet.
This release fixes a number of bugs and adds some new features, like the ability to reload a site that has redirected you to a mobile page. Despite Jakob Nielsen’s recent pronouncement that users want to be auto-redirected to simplified mobile sites, Google’s Chrome for Android developers think otherwise.
Chrome for Android’s new feature subverts websites that automatically redirect you to a mobile version by spoofing Chrome for Android’s user agent string, in this case sending the string for the desktop version of Chrome instead of the mobile (which developers should note has been updated as well).
The new feature means that if a site offers a sub-par mobile experience by default, you can always reload the desktop version with the press of a button.
Also new in this release is the ability to add bookmarks to your home screen for fast access to your favorite sites and web apps.
In addition to the new features, Chrome for Android is now available in 31 more languages and in all countries where Google Play is supported. Chrome for Android is still a beta release and there are plenty of known issues, but the browser is getting closer to a finished product.
Mozilla is planning a makeover for Firefox on Android. The company has announced it plans to abandon the usual Firefox look on Android mobile devices and will instead use Android’s native user interface widgets.
Under the hood Firefox for Android will still use the Gecko rendering engine, but without the XUL interface that powers Firefox on every other platform, Firefox for Android might be missing its familiar look.
XUL, which comes from the mouth-twisting phrase eXtensible User interface Language, was originally developed so that Firefox could have a similar interface across platforms. That is, with a few tweaks to Gecko, Firefox can easily move from Windows to Mac to Linux and back while maintaining a reasonably consistent appearance. Behind the scenes XUL means that Firefox has to do some extra work to draw itself on the screen, but on the desktop it’s hardly noticeable.
However, on mobile platforms, where memory and processors are still very limited, XUL is slowing Firefox down.
Writing on the Mozilla Mobile Platforms mailing list, Johnathan Nightingale, Director of Firefox Engineering, says that the move to a native Android interface will mean faster startup times, significantly less memory usage and a much snappier user interface — particularly when performing common mobile tasks like zooming and panning.
Of course everything in software is a trade off and the significant downside to using native elements for Firefox on Android is the possible loss of XUL-dependant add-ons. Nightingale says that the mobile team is working with the add-on team to find a solution, but so far nothing has been decided for sure. One possible solution would be to use native widgets for the main Firefox interface elements, but keep XUL around under the hood so that add-ons could still function.
Another concern is that, without its familiar user interface, Firefox won’t really be any different than other Android browsers. Firefox developer Robert Kaiser writes that he believes a “Firefox with native Android UI won’t be very much better than the native Android browser.”
Asa Dotzler, community coordinator for Firefox, is more confident, claiming that Mozilla is “not bound by any technology,” and that, if it needs to, Mozilla can “make add-ons work with a native [Android] UI.”
Nightingale says that a decision regarding add-ons will be made in the next few weeks, but that “Firefox 8 and 9 will ship with the XUL UI,” including the new user interface for tablets, while work continues on the native Android version. In other words, the native version isn’t likely to arrive until Firefox 10 rolls around in 2012.
Mozilla has launched an ambitious new project aimed at breaking down the proprietary app systems on today’s mobile devices. The project, dubbed WebAPI, is Mozilla’s effort to provide a consistent, cross-platform, web-based API for mobile app developers.
Using WebAPI, developers would write HTML5 applications rather than native apps for iOS, Android and other mobile platforms.
Mozilla isn’t just talking about WebAPI, it’s already hard at work. It plans to develop the APIs necessary to provide “a basic HTML5 phone experience” within six months. After that the APIs will be submitted to the W3C for standardization.
Among the APIs Mozilla wants to develop are a telephone and messaging API for calls and SMS, a contacts API, a camera API and half a dozen more.
So, why the new effort from Mozilla? Well, Mozilla’s WebAPI is a part of its larger Boot to Gecko Project, which aims to eventually develop an operating system that emphasizes standards-based web technologies. With that end goal in mind, WebAPI may end up somewhat different than what the W3C is trying to build.
It’s also possible that Mozilla simply doesn’t want to wait for the Device APIs Working Group. Mozilla wants WebAPI up and running in a mere six months, the W3C’s Device APIs Work Group is unlikely to move that fast. But “the idea is to collaborate with W3C and all players and together form a good solution, and not just dump it on them,” says Mozilla Technical Evangelist Robert Nyman in a comment on his post announcing WebAPI.
The dream of write-once, run-anywhere software is nothing new and, if history is any guide, Mozilla’s WebAPI efforts may well be doomed. The open source giant does have one thing going for it that most other efforts have not — the open web. Most write-once, run-anywhere attempts have come from companies like Adobe and were built around proprietary frameworks. WebAPI doesn’t suffer from vender lock-in the way some projects have. WebAPI’s main roadblock is convincing other mobile web browsers to support the APIs.
For WebAPI to appeal to developers, Mozilla will need Apple, Google and other mobile browser makers to implement the APIs so that WebAPI can compete with native applications. Before you dismiss that as an impossibility, bear in mind that Apple’s original vision for iOS app development was based around HTML applications, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a company more eager to embrace web apps than Google. Whether either company will devote any resources to implementing WebAPI remains to be seen. But if Mozilla can get WebAPI standardized by the W3C other browser makers would likely support it.
Opera Software has announced that the next version of its desktop web browser, Opera 11, will include support for hardware acceleration and browser extensions. The company also has plans to port its popular Opera Mobile browser to Android phones.
When Safari jumped on the bandwagon and offered extensions earlier this year, Opera was the last browser that did not have a system in place for third-party add-ons. While Opera has long been a major source of browser innovation — it was the first browser to offer tabbed browsing, visual tab navigation, mouse gestures, SVG graphics and page zooming, all since copied by other browsers — add-ons were one place Opera trailed the browser pack. But not any more.
Opera’s extensions will be based on the W3C Widget specification (which defines a “widget” as a downloadable and locally stored web application) and, according to the company, it should be relatively easy to port existing Chrome and Safari extensions to Opera’s platform.
Also coming in Opera 11 is hardware acceleration. Hardware acceleration allows the browser to offload intensive tasks like image scaling, rendering complex text or displaying scripted animations to your PC’s graphics card. It has the benefit of freeing up the PC’s main processor and speeding up page load times.
Firefox, Internet Explorer and Google Chrome will all add varying degrees of hardware acceleration to their next versions, and with Opera joining in, that means only Apple’s Safari will be missing GPU capabilities.
Opera’s hardware acceleration won’t be limited to the desktop version of Opera either. The company has announced plans to build Opera Mobile for Android. The mobile version of Opera is a full-fledged web browser (unlike Opera Mini, which is available for the iPhone and countless other mobile devices) and will feature hardware acceleration and pinch-to-zoom support for Android.
Opera hasn’t set a date for the release of either Opera 11 or Opera Mobile for Android, though the company did say the latter will available within a month.