Android Automotive is slowly but surely taking over the car market. The car-optimized version of Android runs on the in-car infotainment systems of quite a few manufacturers, giving you access to all your favorite apps, like Google Maps, Spotify and more, on the go. However, one thing has been missing for a long time and that is a regular web browser that you can use while your car is parked. Vivaldi changed that in December 2021, becoming the first (and so far only) browser to make itself available to cars.
We spoke with Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner, CEO of Vivaldi, about the potential of in-car browsers and how the development could mirror mobile web browsing in the pre-Android days.
At 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, launching first on select Audi models in July 2023. The new Mercedes E-Class will even include Vivaldi in its suite of pre-installed apps. This trajectory makes it clear that there is certainly interest in accessing a web browser in cars – and rightly so.
While the app lineup on Android Automotive cars is still limited, with Google finally opening the door to video apps only last year, a browser offers the chance to get around such restrictions. That means you can use it to bridge the gap that currently exists, allowing you to log into any of your favorite streaming services, video conferencing platforms, custom podcast services, or news websites (like us). While you can only access the browser when the car is parked, it is possible to have audio running in the background while driving.
In addition, Jon makes it clear that many of Vivaldi’s core features, such as the extensive customization and theme options, are also available on Android Automotive.
Hoping to repeat Opera Mini history
During our conversation, the comparison with Opera Mini naturally came up. This makes sense, given that Jon co-founded Opera, starting Vivaldi only some time after leaving Opera – and then not really liking what happened to it.
Opera Mini, the special mobile-optimized version of the Opera browser, predates the Android operating system and was first available on feature phones compatible with Java ME before being released to platforms such as Nokia’s Symbian, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile. came.
At the time, it was one of the best browsers you could hope for, offering significantly faster load times, better performance, and more features than most pre-installed browsers. It achieved this in part by routing web requests through its own compression proxy servers before they made their way to your phone, making websites much more palatable on the underpowered handsets and slow data speeds of yesteryear.
Opera still had an uphill battle, especially in discussions with manufacturers and journalists. Jon remembers people wondering how useful a browser could actually be on a phone, and why on earth anyone would want to surf the web on their mobile. Thanks to anonymized data collected through Opera Mini, the company was able to easily prove that people were very interested in using the internet on their phones. Presenting those findings on various shows, the arguments against web browsing on phones quickly fell silent.
Today, Opera Mini is one of the most installed web browsers on Android, and it is one of the few applications to receive the badge for over 500 million downloads in the Play Store list – although we should mention that Opera had many deals with various phone manufacturers and carriers to include the mini browsers as a pre-installed app.
Opera Mini as it looks now 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 use the internet on the relatively small screen while charging your car on a road trip or while waiting for someone. Instead, you can simply use the big screen with the great sound system already integrated into your car for all your normal browsing needs.
With many productivity tools available as web apps, Jon says he could even join a video conference from 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 could still see everyone else who had their cameras on.
You could make the argument that using your car’s display is unergonomic and uncomfortable, but the same goes for old feature phones. It’s clear that we’re in the early days of Android in the car, and with the rise of autonomous vehicles, feature-rich infotainment systems are likely to become much more prominent, and faster than we might think. It might even be possible to eventually move the screen around in some cars, just like you could with a tablet mounted on an arm.
Vivaldi is coming to iOS very soon
While Vivaldi single-handedly dominates the Android Automotive market due to a lack of competition, it has yet to make the jump to a mobile platform arguably more important than cars: iOS. The company has so far been reluctant to tackle iOS, as it doesn’t currently allow alternative rendering engines. Here, all browsers must use Webkit, Safari’s engine. Even Chrome and Firefox are essentially different themed versions of Safari with some extra features thrown in.
With markets like the US completely dominated by iPhones, not having Vivaldi on iOS is a soft spot, even considering those major technical limitations. That’s why Vivaldi announced a while ago that it’s working on support, and Jon confirmed to us that the browser is almost ready at this point. The only thing missing is the ad and tracking blocker that is normally integrated into the browser.
Jon explains the reason is Webkit, which is essentially a black box, preventing Vivaldi engineers from customizing it to their needs. This means they have to implement tracker blocking on top of the engine, rather than as part of it, which 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. Google and Mozilla are both already testing Chromium and Gecko-based builds for iOS, strongly suggesting that Apple will soon drop its Webkit-only requirement for browsers in the App Store. This could make it easier for Vivaldi to port future features to all of its platforms. Android Automotive and other platforms can only benefit from that.