Google (GOOG -0.89%) (GOOGL -0.71%) recently added push notifications from websites to the desktop and Android versions of Chrome. The update is significant, since it gives websites the ability to deliver notifications to devices, even if the Chrome browser isn't running.
When users visit supported websites -- such as eBay, Pinterest, Vice News, and Product Hunt -- they will be given an option to activate push notifications. Let's take a closer look at why this update could be a game changer for Android devices.
What is Google up to?
With the update, any company with a mobile website -- not just those with apps -- can deliver push notifications to mobile devices. That strategy tethers users to Google's ecosystem while blurring the lines between Android, mobile websites, and mobile apps.
This complements Google's recent "mobile friendly" update, which downgrades sites not optimized for smaller smartphone screens. A recent TechCrunch study found that the update would impact over 40% of Fortune 500 company websites.
On PCs, the update complements Google's plans to take over Windows systems remotely via Chrome. The Chrome browser can already be used to remotely access PCs via the Chrome Remote Desktop app for Android and iOS devices. Since Chrome bookmarks are automatically synchronized between PCs and Android devices, the update can allow websites to push notifications to both.
Why is this a priority for Google?
Many companies develop native mobile apps to deliver push notifications. Those native apps can hurt Google if users rely on them instead of Google Search or its Chrome browser. Native apps can also get tethered to Facebook's ecosystem via single sign-ons, which deliver user data to the social network instead of Google. Last August, comScore reported that mobile apps are used almost seven times as often as browser-based sites.
Google needs to generate search and ad revenue through its search engine, and to accumulate user data from visits in Chrome. Native apps cut Google off from both. To prevent companies from widening the gap between mobile apps, mobile sites, and Android, Google is trying to pull more websites back under a common umbrella. With the Chrome update, companies that don't want to maintain both mobile websites and apps can simply add notifications to the former.
Google also recently let third-party websites deliver customized cards to Google Now. Those cards, which can be delivered to the mobile app or Android Wear smartwatches, are basically big push notifications. Integrating that system with Chrome-based push notifications would be the logical next step, opening up a line of communication between websites and wrists.
Google's plan sounds simple, but its execution won't be. To deliver push notifications to PCs and Android devices, websites must be updated with a high-level, hard-to-use HTML5 feature known as Service Worker.
Chrome notifications also won't be compatible with iOS devices, which further complicates coding issues. Other players also make the issue more complex. Apple added notifications on Safari for the desktop, but they don't work on iOS devices. Mozilla is also developing its own Firefox-based notification system.
With a 17% global market share on desktops, Chrome is the second-most-popular Web browser in the world after Microsoft's Internet Explorer. But even that market clout might not convince developers to embrace different desktop and mobile notifications systems for multiple operating systems and browsers.
Google's moves could be interpreted as anti-competitive efforts aimed at tightening its grip on websites worldwide. This could be a big problem, since Google faces an antitrust probe in Europe regarding search bias and its app bundling practices on Android.
Should we hope Google succeeds?
Google has three main advantages over Apple and Mozilla. First, Android powered 77% of the world's smartphones in 2014, according to IDC. Second, it made website-based push notifications work on mobile devices before Apple. Third, its position as the world's top search engine gives it tremendous influence over websites dependent on its search rankings.
But if Google succeeds, companies will need to exercise restraint in delivering notifications. If websites deliver too many messages or promotions, they could turn the Android notification shade or the PC desktop into a river of spam. Annoyed users would turn the feature off for individual websites, companies would stick with native apps, and mobile apps and mobile sites will drift further apart.
In mobile devices, Google is losing control of Android to rivals that are stripping its services from the OS. Meanwhile, Internet users are bypassing Google's search engine and jumping straight to specialized travel, shopping, or business review websites.
Google's push notifications for Chrome are intended to widen its defensive moat against those disruptive trends. Whether it succeeds, however, will depend on how many partners support that effort.