Google is still the one holding back native browsers for Windows on Arm

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If you’ve been following for a decade, you know that the story between Microsoft and Google is the same. Whether it’s Windows RT, Windows Phone, or Windows 11 on Arm, we never see native Google apps. Sure, the first two of those three platforms are long dead, but Windows on Arm is alive and well, and there’s no native Arm64 Google Chrome browser for it.

I had heard in early 2019 that Google had an Arm64 version of Chrome out of the box, and one of my sources compared it to Prime Video support for Chromecast. In other words, these two companies must first come to an agreement. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, as there are plenty of Arm-powered Chromebooks out there. Google is no stranger to having its browser run on Qualcomm processors.

But still, the only Browsers that run natively on Windows Arm64 PCs are Microsoft Edge and Mozilla Firefox. So while it’s not really a mystery why Google isn’t bringing its own apps to Windows on Arm, the question is, what about browsers like Vivaldi, Brave and Opera? Turns out it’s also Google’s fault.

It all comes down to Widevine

Microsoft rebuilt its Edge browser from Chromium some time ago, and it removed most of the Google components; however, most browser manufacturers do not have the resources that Microsoft does. Vivaldi, Brave, and pretty much every other Chromium browser except Edge uses Widevine, Google’s DRM solution needed to run web apps like Netflix and other streaming services. Google doesn’t offer Widevine for Windows on Arm, so that’s the roadblock. The browser would work, but these services would not.

Vivaldi logo on yellow background

When I asked Vivaldi about a native Arm64 version of his browser, the answer was a resounding no.

“The biggest issue would be that it wouldn’t work with any of the major media platforms like Netflix, Prime, Disney+, etc. a spokesperson for Vivaldi said in a statement to XDA. “And that is entirely and completely out of our hands because Google doesn’t produce Widevine for Windows ARM and without that we can’t decrypt DRM used on those platforms. So we could build a browser, but you couldn’t use it for any of those services. If and when Google starts offering Widevine for Arm on Windows, then we could and maybe should.

The firm acknowledged that it could theoretically be possible to ditch Widevine in favor of Microsoft’s PlayReady, which is why Edge can run natively on Arm, but of course “that would take some work”. It should be noted that even though Windows on Arm devices have been in the market for over five years, it is still not a mature platform. The sheer volume of devices in use probably doesn’t justify that kind of effort from a small company like Vivaldi Technologies.

brave navigator

I also spoke to Brave when I started researching this story. The company didn’t offer the same hard no as Vivaldi. He did, however, acknowledge Widevine’s problem. VP of Engineering Brian Clifton was pretty blunt that there really aren’t any barriers to building the browser. He also suggested that instead of a native version of Widevine, Brave might be able to come up with a “clever workaround”. In fact, it seems that the company is already I’m working on it.

I also contacted Opera, but the company declined to comment.

Again, the issue here is not whether the browser will work or not. It’s that without Widevine, the browser wouldn’t be fully functional with services like Netflix not working.

Native browsers are really important

Windows on Arm PCs can emulate any application designed for an Intel processor. There’s nothing stopping you from using Google Chrome, Vivaldi, Brave, Opera, or any other browser you can get your hands on. It’s just not very good.

This has been a problem since the early days of Windows on Arm. Web browsers generate code on the fly, which is harder to cache and emulate. When you start to see the drastic difference in performance between the browser you want to use and Microsoft Edge, you’ll probably go for Edge, or just buy an Intel PC.

The official Qualcomm statement we obtained reads: “The momentum of the Windows app ecosystem on Snapdragon continues to gather pace as more market leaders invest in delivering ARM-native solutions. We look forward to sharing new releases as they are publicly announced by our ISV partners.Google did not respond to our requests for comment.

The goal I’ve heard from many people within Qualcomm is that eventually the performance will become good enough that you won’t even notice an app is emulated anymore. Indeed, it is a possibility, but given that it has now been more than five years, it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold out hope that this problem will be fixed.

Of course, Qualcomm is working on custom processors that will compete with Apple Silicon and ship next year. Hopefully, this will be the break the platform needs, as current Qualcomm Snapdragon chips based on Arm reference designs don’t seem to be up to snuff.

Until then, the fate of Windows on Arm seems, once again, to be in Google’s hands. As long as it can prevent native browsers from being compiled for Arm64, especially when one of them is Google Chrome, Microsoft’s fate is still tied to Intel.

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