Android Automotive is slowly but steadily taking over the car market. The car-optimized version of Android is running on quite a few manufactures’ in-vehicle infotainment systems, allowing you to access all your favorite apps, like Google Maps, Spotify, and more, on the go. One thing has been missing for a long time, though, and that’s a regular web browser for you to use while your car is parked. Vivaldi changed that back in December 2021, becoming the first (and so far only) browser to make itself available for cars.
We sat down with Vivaldi CEO Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner to talk about the potential of browsers in cars, and how the development might mirror that of mobile web browsing in the days before Android.
During MWC 2023, Jon tells us, Vivaldi announced a few new partnerships designed to make the most of that potential. Vivaldi is coming to Volkswagen cars as part of the Cariad app store, which is launching first on select Audi models in July 2023. The new Mercedes E-Class will even include Vivaldi in its lineup of pre-installed apps. This trajectory makes clear that there is certainly interest in having access to a web browser in cars — and for good reason.
While the app lineup on Android Automotive cars is still limited, with Google only last year finally opening the door for video apps, a browser offers the chance to side-step such restrictions. That means you can use it to bridge the gap that currently exists, allowing you to log in to any of your favorite streaming services, video-conferencing platforms, custom podcast services, or news websites (such as ourselves). While you can only access the browser when the car is parked, it is possible to have audio running in the background while you’re driving.
On top of this, Jon makes clear that a lot of Vivaldi’s core features, like its extensive customization and theming options, are also available on Android Automotive.
Hoping to repeat Opera Mini’s history
During our discussion, the comparison to Opera Mini naturally came up. This makes sense, given that Jon co-founded Opera, with him only starting Vivaldi a while after leaving Opera — and then not particularly liking what was happening to it.
Opera Mini, the special, mobile-optimized version of the Opera browser, predates the Android operating system, and it was first available on feature phones compatible with Java ME, before coming to platforms like Nokia’s Symbian, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile.
Back then, it was one of the best browsers you could hope for, as it offered significantly faster load times, better performance, and more features than most pre-installed browsers. It partially achieved this by funneling web requests through its own compression proxy servers before they made their way to your phone, making websites much more digestible on the underpowered handsets and slow data speeds of yesteryear.
Opera still had an uphill battle to fight, especially when talking to manufacturers and journalists. Jon recalls people questioning how useful a browser could really be on a phone, and why on earth anyone would want to browse the web on their mobile in the first place. Thanks to anonymized data collected through Opera Mini, the company could easily prove that people were very much interested in using the web on their phones. When presenting those findings on various shows, arguments against web browsing on phones quickly fell silent.
Today, Opera Mini is one of the most installed web browsers on Android, and it’s one of only a few applications that received the 500M+ downloads badge on its Play Store listing — though we should mention that Opera had many deals with various phone makers and carriers to include the Mini browsers as a pre-installed app.
Opera Mini as it looks like today on Android
Jon hopes that Vivaldi will be an equally successful story on Android Automotive. With electric vehicles on the rise, Jon envisions a future where you’re not forced to pick up your phone and access the web on its comparatively small screen while your car charges up during a road trip, or while waiting for someone. Instead, you could easily use the big screen with the great sound system that’s already integrated into your car for all your regular browsing needs.
With many productivity tools available as web apps, Jon says that he was even able to join a video conference while in his (parked) car, with crystal clear audio coming through the vehicle’s speakers and the car’s microphones picking up his voice. The only thing that didn’t work for him was video, due to the lack of a camera integrated into the car, but he was still able to see everyone else who had theirs turned on.
You could make the argument that using your car’s display is unergonomic and uncomfortable, but the same can be said for feature phones of old. It’s clear that we’re in the early days of in-car Android, and with autonomous vehicles on the rise, feature-rich infotainment systems are probably only going to become much more front and center, and sooner than we might think. It might even be possible to eventually move the screen in some cars, much like you could do with a tablet mounted on an arm.
Vivaldi is coming to iOS very soon
While Vivaldi is single-handedly dominating the Android Automotive market due to a lack of competition, it has yet to make the jump to a mobile platform that might arguably be even more important than cars: iOS. The company has so far been reluctant to tackle iOS, as it currently doesn’t allow for alternative rendering engines. Here, all browsers have to use Webkit, which is Safari’s engine. Even Chrome and Firefox are essentially just differently themed versions of Safari, with some extra features on top.
With markets like the US wholly dominated by iPhones, not having Vivaldi on iOS is a weak spot, even taking into account those major technical limitations. That’s why Vivaldi announced that it’s working on support a while ago, and Jon confirmed to us that the browser is almost ready at this point. The only thing that’s still missing is the ad and tracking blocker that’s normally integrated into the browser.
Jon explains the reason is Webkit, which is essentially a black box, preventing Vivaldi engineers from tweaking it to their needs. This means that they have to implement tracker blocking on top of the engine, rather than as a part of it, which is what the company has done for the Chromium-based Android and desktop versions of its browser.
Jon is also hopeful that this is just a stopgap solution. Google and Mozilla are both already testing Chromium and Gecko-based builds for iOS, strongly suggesting that Apple might soon drop its Webkit-only requirement for browsers on its App Store. This could make it easier for Vivaldi to port future features across all of its platforms. Android Automotive and other platforms will only benefit from that.
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