If you’re using an Android phone, no matter if it’s one of the best Android phones or a great cheap Android phone, chances are you’ve been having trouble with a lot of apps these days. When a bunch of otherwise working apps start crashing and burning, there’s usually a single culprit responsible, and this time around it was a shaky update for the component Android System WebView.
You may be wondering what Gmail, Google Maps, and even Instagram have in common that could cause all three to stop working when a small and mostly unknown component goes haywire. It’s something we can tear apart and talk about. So, with that in mind, let’s jump right into our Android system WebView explainer.
What is the Android WebView system?
A lot of the apps that are in the google play store need to show something from the internet. Virtually every single Google service is web-based, your social media are all hosted on a web server, and many games are also played via the web and need a component that acts as a web browser to function properly.
You can easily picture this by yourself by opening the Chrome browser and visiting www.gmail.com, where you will see the URL change when you are directed to a web app where all your emails reside. It looks a little different from the Gmail app, but all the content is fine. Of course it also works from any desktop web browser.
It would be easy to create an app that is nothing more than a web link to gmail.com, but having a dedicated app makes notifications better, and some of Android’s other tools can be incorporated using app permissions. Many apps and services will work flawlessly in Chrome via the appropriate site, but usually having an app improves the user experience.
Rather than having each app use its own built-in web browser which can render in the same way as Google Chrome’s flashing engine, Google has provided a built-in system component that works; when it works, that is. Think of Android System WebView as a Chrome tab without all of the extra junk Chrome has going on like syncing or a set of extensions that use computing power. It’s easy, it works, it’s much lighter on system resources than opening the same information in Chrome, and it saves developers a lot of time because they don’t have to build this system themselves.
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How does Android WebView work?
Android WebView is a piece of code that allows a developer to open web content within their app as described above. What makes it a great idea is how easy it is to use.
A developer can add the WebView activity to an app with three short lines of code, ask for permission to use the Internet, and open any web content they want with a few more lines of code. This code doesn’t need to know what’s on the web address you’re using and just renders the content the same way any web browser would, including scripts.
This means that a developer can point a window within their app to a web URL, and that URL can contain up-to-date dynamic content outside of the app itself. This makes Android WebView perfect for something like a Reddit app or your Gmail because all you have to do to see any new or changed content is to refresh the page.
It would be incredibly difficult to create an always up-to-date web service and corresponding app without using part of the actual web page for the service. With Google providing a system-wide method for grasping those sections of the web, it can maintain standards, and everything can be updated by Google rather than any developer getting by on their own. Most modern operating systems have a similar way of displaying dynamic web content within an application.
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What happens when the WebView crashes?
An update for Android System WebView (you update this particular system component via Google Play) turned out to be a bit odd that afternoon and the result was that apps that depended on Android WebView could no longer display the content they needed. It didn’t affect everyone and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to explain the bug. The good news is that it was quickly fixed, and if you have updated Chrome and the Android WebView “app”, everything is ready to work once again.
This really shows why the system that Google has in place here is so great and how many other apps depend on its working properly. If this bug has hit you, having many of your apps not working may not have seemed so great. But a quick turnaround and a solution sent to all users all at once almost they make up for it.
It also shows how much attention Google has to pay every time it updates a system component. A quick fix is great, but having millions of users with apps that don’t work due to your bug certainly isn’t. Something like Android WebView is pretty well tested before it’s eliminated, but the bugs still happen. How quickly they are found and repaired is even more important than preventing them in the first place.
Android WebView isn’t something glamorous, nor is it one of those things we talk about a lot. Usually he just stands there and does his job, and we don’t really care. But it’s still interesting to know how this all works and how much our phones really depend on the internet.
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