Google Lab Adds Gesture Control in Android Web Browser


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We have been spending a fair bit of time discussing the Android Web Browser experience on the Android 4 tablet platform, courtesy of the Transformer Prime. We even had a chance to check out the Chrome for Android Beta browser.

The fundamental issue here is that even though the stock Android web browser and the Chrome browser are great examples of browser environments and functionality, they don’t address the issue of how touch screen interfaces differ incredibly from standard desktop environments.

The stock Android web browser on Ice Cream Sandwich tablets gives a little insight into what they are developing over at the Google labs. It’s a great example of innovative gesture design.

(note:  one of our readers @Diesel, has kindly pointed out that this Labs feature is actually also available on Honeycomb Tablets, which is terrific news for owners of Android 3.2 tablets.)

If you own a tablet that happens to have been upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich, then simply select the stock browser, press the menu button on the upper right hand corner, and go to settings. The last option you’ll then see on the left hand side is the Labs button. Select Labs then tick the Quick Controls box.

When you return to the browser, you’ll be able to see the entire page with no top or bottom area compromise. Sliding your thumb in from either the left of or the right presents a semi circle with icons denoting certain functions. These provide instant access to common commands, such as bookmarks, deleting current tab, adding  a new tab, back, forward, and refresh.

Menu options on Android Web Browser

Using the left hand thumb, hovering over each icon will display the relevant options.

The tab select button is an interesting space to flick through currently open tabs vertically, easily navigating to your open page of choice. Even though this is a hidden little gem in the software, it also gives an indication of what functions may appear on progressive releases, and perhaps eventually on Chrome for Android web browser.

Tab Control on Android Web Browser

The right hand thumb has the same options in mirror image. Here the Tabs are selected vertically.

After using this “Easter Egg” feature on the ICS Android web browser, it becomes pretty clear that there has been a fair bit of thought into making it useful for both left and right-handed people. The browser has also been made more efficient by placing commands in the natural areas where hands would be holding the tablet.

For Chrome to really take the lead in mobile browsing, adding an option to control the online navigation could position Chrome for Android into the ultimate mobile internet browser.

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Here’s the Ritchie’s Room video showing some of the cool features of the experimental Lab Android web browser.

 

 

Would you shift your mobile browser to Chrome if it included gesture functionality similar to what we’ve shown, or is it still too clunky to be a real feature? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Chrome for Android Comes Without Flash Support

Whether it’s on a smartphone or a tablet, the quality of the online browsing experience is critical to the success of any mobile device. Chrome for Android aims to become the optimum browser for Android devices. However, as we pointed out in our previous article, Chrome for Android comes without Flash support in its Beta state, and none is planned.

This development (or lack thereof in this case) was also commented on by  Adobe. They mentioned continued development of the PC-based Flash product, and their contribution to HTML5. That in effect is a surrender to the market shift away from their long-standing plug-in.

Is it such a big deal that this browser is throwing the towel in so early? After all, even the stock browser supports Flash, and we made a tongue-in-cheek video pointing this out when comparing it to the iPad. Today we could very well re-shoot that video, only this time with two Android tablets: one running the stock browser and the other running Chrome for Android that doesn’t support Flash.

Chrome for Android Comes Without Flash Support

No, this is not an iPad screenshot, it's a Transformer Prime showing the world that Chrome for Android comes without Flash support.

When we step away from the issue and look at it a little more objectively, Flash is still very much reliant on localised drivers and plug-ins to provide an online experience. In this day and age that combination does seem to be a little old-fashioned. With all things moving to online storage, cloud services and less dependence on the specs of notebooks (take Ultrabooks) and tablets (which are stripped down compared to any PC of note), HTML5 seems to be the best solution.

Chrome for Android comes without Flash support, but will enable HTML5 authors and developers to create rich, interactive environments that will be transferable to any device, regardless of their plug in. After all, why should we need to download an app for Adobe Flash Player  just to see a website in its entirety on an Android device?

The very nature of the functionality of Chrome for Android is to connect seamlessly with your desktop experience. With no plug-ins and instant access to open tabs, the shift is very much in the favor of HTML5, the fact that Chrome for Android comes without Flash support seems to be a short term issue.

Apple did indeed bring this topic to a head. It’s encouraging to see the entire mobile platform converging on a single standard for the benefit of all mobile browser users, regardless of which ecosystem they have invested in.

Chrome on Android Using the Asus Transformer Prime

Earlier this week Google released the beta version of Chrome on Android, fulfilling a commitment to provide a seamless link between the desktop and mobile browsing experience.

Here’s our video showing you some great cross-device activities that, up until now, haven’t been possible, and it’s exciting to see them in action.

At this stage only 12 countries, including Australia, have been given access to the beta version of Chrome on Android, and it is limited to mobile and tablet devices with the Android 4 and above OS. In Australia, that really only gives the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the Asus Transformer Prime the opportunity to show off this new browser. We are lucky enough to have a Prime tablet at our disposal, so we can show this off in tablet mode to you.

 

Chrome on Android menu system

The menu for the Chrome beta for Android browser, which includes "Other devices", a hint at the cross-device power of this internet browser.

The intention is for Google to move its stock browser over to Chrome on Android once beta testing has been completed, and if the initial experience is any indication, it’s a good move.

First up, the browser asks for your gmail account details to sign you in, as a large portion of the features involves utilising synching with your desktop browser. If you currently don’t use Chrome and do own a Nexus or Transformer Prime, I’d suggest you move over immediately to at least see what this has to offer.

Once you’ve signed in, make sure you’re also signed in over on your Chrome Desktop browser, because this is where the fun really begins.

Once you use the Chrome on Android beta browser a few times, one thing becomes very obvious – that Google is looking to provide a completely seamless browsing experience regardless of what device you are on. Whatever bookmarks you currently have on your desktop are immediately pushed to your tablet, and any changes you make are also moved across.

Chrome on Android Desktop and Local bookmarks

You can see the bookmarks above for both local and synched content within the Chrome beta browser.

But that’s not all. The synching also brings across your browsing history, so any websites you visit regularly will come up in priority to other search results. It’s uncanny, opening this browser for the first time and it knows what you are entering in the Omnibox.

What’s an Omnibox, I hear you ask? It’s the box in Chrome where you enter the URL, but can also be used for search terms. No more looking for a Google search box, just type right in the omnibox and you’ll get taken to the website of your choice or be presented with a list of options based on your search term. Those that use Chrome on desktop will be used to this feature, but it’s the sudden “awareness” of your new device using Chrome on Android that makes it a little spooky.

 

Chrome for Android Browsing Spooky Geen Android

Does it get any spookier than this Chrome eyed little Green Android?

Synching is one thing, but how about transferring all your open tabs on your desktop to your tablet? When you open a new tab, there are three rectangular buttons at the middle bottom: Most Visited, Bookmarks and Other Devices.

Most visited appears to be a more localised history. Bookmarks are split into Desktop, Other and Mobile bookmarks. Opening the Desktop bookmarks folder presents all the bookmarks from your desktop.

“Other devices” presents the currently open tabs from other Chrome browsers that you are currently signed into. However, instead of just duplicating all the tabs, it shows the pages in a list form so you can choose which ones you want to open. This is a great feature if you are on your desktop searching for movie times or restaurants and want to continue that exploration while you are at large.

Chrome on Android open tabs from desktop

Here you can see open tabs from the Toshiba PC, and a webpage that has been pushed to the tablet.

Another feature is the Chrome to Mobile feature, which ensures the page you were on is sent to your device even if you shut your current sessions down or have to power off your PC. Just install the free Chrome to Mobile app onto your desktop browser, and a small phone icon will now appear on the right hand side of the Omnibox. Press the icon, and a dialogue box will ask you to confirm which device to push to.

The next time you open your Chrome browser on your tablet, the page will be there waiting for you under the “Other Devices” area. This is a much quicker way of sending links, going browser to browser instead of going from the browser, to sending an email, receiving the email and pressing a link that opens in a browser – everything happens within Chrome.

Chrome is known for its “Incognito” option, and it is replicated here, and the overlapping squares and “Spy vs Spy” icon on the left hand side makes sure you don’t forget which browser you are in.

Chrome on Android incognito browsing

Incognito mode opens another window with all incognito tabs gathered, with easy switching between both modes.

The last thing I will mention here is voice search, another icon on the right hand side of the omnibox that, once pressed, will display a microphone for you to verbalise your search request. It seemed to be intelligent enough to pick up the basic phrases we threw at it, but given it is a beta version I’m sure it’s a feature they are working on to be polished by the time the final version is released.

Chrome for Android Browsing Voice Search Windows

Search by speaking is now available. Voice search is a highly competitive domain and Google need to deliver a polished product.

The initial impression of the beta version of Chrome on Android is very positive, and given this is the foundation for their stock browser once users provide feedback and bugs are ironed out, the idea of always-connected, always-on takes another step forward. Web browsing is a huge part of what we do on devices, and to have an uninterrupted experience between the difference physical screens we use is a very compelling reason to move to Chrome, both from a tablet and a desktop perspective.

Have you tried out Chrome beta on an Android mobile or tablet, and what are your thoughts? Are there any other scenarios that you’d like us to test? Let us know in the comments area below.

Google TV: The Future of Television?

Can Google TV recover from its initial poor performance in the TV entertainment category?

For those who have been watching Google’s activities in the last couple of years, Google TV has stuck out like a sore thumb as one initiative that has not become a runaway success like many other of their businesses. But is 2012 the year that Google TV finally comes of age and becomes part of how we choose and view our content in the living room?

Google TV launched with Sony back in 2010, offering a Blu-ray device with the firmware and connectivity built-in as well as a television with Google TV, along with a set-top box from Logitech.

Google’s initial entrance into the market was beset by software and product fault issues, with many users unsatisfied by the clunkiness of the interface and lack of real integration into the existing home entertainment environment.

After parting with Logitech, their initial set-top box partner, Google is now focusing a a much more sensible route – the television itself, and expanding its partner base to other brands such as LG.

This makes complete sense to someone looking at this from this outside in. With the advent of Smart TVs, you don’t need or desire additional components invading your already-full TV cabinet – the internet is now available straight from the TV, and integrated Wi-Fi is steadily becoming the standard to make Smart TVs always-connected.

Google TV is the progression of Smart TV rather than the progression of its initial add-on offering, and if Google had launched with this concept instead, it would probably be hailed as a breakthrough in large screen connectivity. Instead, the proposition was left to companies like LG to spruik it along with Google TV employees at the CES, one of which we managed to spend some time with at the stand.

I remember the uproar from publishers when Google started digitising books of its own accord, offending copyright owners and estates. This is one area that Google has not been good at managing: digital rights. So when Google TV launched back in 2010, it was crippled by a lack of licensed content because of worried content providers and had to rely on a select few partners to make up its content library.

Many things have changed now – more than ever, companies are recognising that digital content is the way viewers will consume their media, and there is actually much more competition to cut through to attract viewers, whether paid or not. The rise of companies like Netflix demonstrates that online business models are not only successful, but in some cases the only way forward.

Another factor is the rise of social media. Being able to recommend, rate and interact with friends over platforms was not possible or maybe even desired two years ago. How things have changed. Now we are “liking”, “plus-ing”, and rating everything we consume. Not only that, we are telling all our friends what we like, plus and rate, and this gives Google a huge opportunity to mine these recommendations and come up with profiles for each viewer.

The third is the hardware. TV manufacturers have now matured and learned from their experiences in Smart TVs that the online experience has to be on par with that of mobile and PC devices, whether it’s streaming, browsing or playing.

So maybe it was a case of the rest of the world catching up with Google on their vision of what the TV experience should be like. But there was one ingredient that was still missing – a robust platform that could be upgraded and used intuitively by anyone in the household. Google’s own Android platform now forms the base for the software that runs the Google TV interface, and with it comes a few core benefits that were not available back when the original service launched.

For example, access to the Android Market is huge plus. With a Google account you can download apps and use them on the TV, and Google has ensured that only apps that are of high enough quality to be used on a big screen are filtered through. Another strong feature is the development of apps specific to Google TV, so that content can be accessed via an app rather than simply searching online.

However, at the end of the day, Google TV is still all about search, and how you find your content is the core proposition of Google TV. To that end, Google have licensed broadcaster TV schedules all over the US to ensure that no matter where you live, the information will be localised to you. Whether you search by genre, by cable channel, pay per view or a YouTube channel, Google TV will help get you to what you want to watch. The idea of being able to search and select no matter what the source, be it online, free-to-air or via your cable provider is a compelling offer.

With learning capabilities, the idea of channel surfing becomes redundant and instead profiled and socially pushed content will be on your front screen from now on. The keyboard control may be a little anachronistic to some, but until there is an easier way to enter search terms, QWERTY will be your friend.

With Microsoft and Xbox making their move into the home entertainment territory, and with it their voice controlled Kinect system, and the mythical Apple Television that may make its debut late this year, it’s important for Google to get a foothold now in this extremely competitive market.

Unlike Apple, Google don’t own content per se, but facilitate the delivery of the media to your lounge room. Therefore, the interface and overall experience needs to be intuitive and as universal as possible in order to entice users to upgrade their TVs, or choose a Google TV when it’s time to purchase a new one.

We caught up with Paul Saxman, who works with developers at Google, focusing on Google TV. He took us through a few interesting features of the Google TV platform and showed us how far the integration of Google TV into content from multiple sources has come.

First, here Paul takes us through the importance of the Android Market and the Chrome browser for Google TV:

 

And here, Paul takes us through content searching and selection.

 

What do you think? Is Google’s TV offer strong enough to bring forward the purchase of a new TV with Google TV built-in, or to sway you towards one when you start looking for a new television? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

(thanks to @Level380 for the feedback on the original version of the article)