Indian phones are weird

Thanks to the good offices of Dees and his Indian colleagues at Mozilla I finally received three Indian test phones two weeks ago. This is the remarkable story of how Indian phone makers are weird in some respects — even weirder than the Chinese ones. Nobody but me cares about this sort of stuff, but this is my blog, so I’ll write my piece anyway.

New Chromia!

At the time I received the phones I was at a conference (the ninth in eight weeks), so I only did a quick check, and found the following default browsers (i.e. browsers present on the home screen):

Obviously, the Micromax and Intex also had Google Chrome installed. They have to, if they want to use Google Services. No surprises here.

I had hoped to get three radically different Chromia for my collection, but no such luck. However, the Micromax Chromium 39 had one oddity: the UA string contains Version/4, which is usually reserved for WebViews. Fortunately Niels Leenheer of HTML5 Test was at hand, and he agreed that it was likely that the Micromax default browser actually uses the WebView, which was also Chromium 39. That was interesting.

Getting them ready for testing

Fast-forward two weeks. Today I first used these phones in actual testing. I added the Micromax Chromium 39 to my test array, and it performed roughly as one would expect from such a phone.

I also studied the Intex’s Opera Mini, which turns out to be a version 11. That’s an old one — Opera Mini is currently at 17. I considered swapping in the Intex for my usual Opera Mini installs because I prefer to test browsers on devices they’re actually the default browser on, but got stuck on the question whether I should update it.

On the one hand I want to test in the latest Opera Mini; on the other hand many actual Intex users in India will likely use the old Opera Mini 11. So what to do? In the end I decided to keep the Intex at 11 and test it alongside a modern 17.

Non-default default browsers

But wait, we’re not done yet. I decided to see what WebViews the Lava and Intex had. Both turned out to have Chromium 39, just like Micromax. That, again, is interesting.

Then I happened to see a “Browser” icon in the app menu of one of the two. I tested it, and it turned out to be, again, Chromium 39. I looked at the other, and it, too, turned out to have a default browser hidden in the app menu; again Chromium 39.

This was getting weird. A phone vendor providing its own default browser based on Chromium is normal. Basing that default browser on the WebView is odd, but understandable if you have few engineers to spare. But subsequently not putting it on your home screen is completely idiotic. How will consumers ever find and use that default browser? And if you don’t care if consumers use your browser or not, why provide it in the first place?

Downgrading the browser by upgrading the WebView

But wait, we’re not done yet. I went to Google Play on the Lava and saw that it offered an update to the WebView.

Ooohhh ... temptation! Would I update the WebView? Would that also update the default browser? But if it did, would my phone still be valid for testing? I doubt the average Indian consumer will do this.

Seeing that I had two other phones with Chromium 39, I decided to gamble it. Update WebView. Error 903. Whut? So it failed, right?

I started up the WebView (I use this app provided by Niels Leenheer), and lo and behold: despite the error it had upgraded to Chromium 51, as expected.

And what about that default browser that Lava does not show on its home screen? I’m glad you asked. It had downgraded from Chromium 39 to 37!

So now I have a unique Indian Chromium 37 for my collection. Pity users won’t actually use it. But maybe I’ll add it to my test array anyway, just for kicks.

Oh, and in case you're wondering: the Micromax and Intex do not offer the possibility of upgrading the WebView. Why would they?

Indian phones are weird.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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