Earlier this year, we uncovered screenshots of a “touchless” version of Chrome which appears to be designed for feature-phone-like devices. New screenshots we were able to obtain have confirmed that this “touchless” Chrome is being built for a version of Android Oreo.
When we originally dug into touchless Chrome, we were reasonably sure, from where the relevant code was located, that the special app was intended for Android, but we didn’t have enough evidence to be certain.
Making Android available for low-end devices without touchscreens would most likely put Google into direct competition with KaiOS feature phones, despite the two companies recently becoming partners.
In a more recent commit tied to touchless Chrome, Google provided two additional screenshots for Chrome’s public translation team, but these were swiftly removed. Thankfully, we were able save one screenshot before the removal occurred and recover the other.
The screenshots very clearly depict a redesigned version of Chrome’s New Tab Page with a condensed “Articles for you” section. Above the suggested articles, we see four icons and text reading “All apps.”
Digging into the touchless code, we find that this “All apps” text is used to show the title of the page icon you hovered over. When hovered over another site, such as the Facebook icon, we’d likely see something like “Facebook” instead. “All apps” is just the title used in touchless Chrome for the app’s Explore Sites feature.
The fact that Google took the time to redesign the New Tab Page confirms that this isn’t simply meant to be used to test websites on smaller, touchless devices. Instead this touchless Chrome appears to be a fully-featured browser for feature phones.
The key detail of these screenshots, however, is actually not part of Chrome. In the top left corner of both screenshots, we can see Android 8.1 Oreo’s “Android System” notification in the status bar. This confirms without a shadow of a doubt that Chrome’s touchless mode is being built for a variant of Android Oreo.
That, of course, begs the question—why Oreo and not Pie or even Android Q? Why is Google basing this touchless effort on a version of Android that is about to be two years out of date? Even Android Go, Google’s existing program for low-end devices, has already seen an update to Pie. We haven’t found any helpful clues on the Android side of things, and all of the Chromium bugs related to touchless Chrome are marked private.
Google I/O is just around the corner, though, and a new format for Android combined with a new version of Chrome, seemingly targeted for the feature phones of Google’s Next Billion Users, seems like it could be a big enough announcement for that event. Perhaps we’ll learn more about touchless Chrome and how it ties in with Android there.