Web Developers Form Advocacy Group to Allow Other Browser Engines on iOS

Apple is being challenged by a group of developers to end WebKit's dominance on its mobile devices and allow other browser engines on iPhone and iPad, following accusations that the current situation amounts to anti-competitive conduct.

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For those unfamiliar with WebKit, Apple's browser engine powers Safari and other areas of the operating system where web content is displayed. Apple requires all third-party browser apps on iOS and iPadOS to use WebKit, but many browser developers are not happy with the limitations this imposes on them.

The latest pushback comes in the form of "Open Web Advocacy" or OWA, a project launched by UK-based developers who want third-party access to all the features that Safari enjoys but which are not available in WebKit.

"The motive of the group is to try to persuade Apple that they need to allow other browser engines on iOS, so the iOS can be a better platform for developing stuff for the modern web," developer Bruce Lawson told The Register. "Because at the moment, every browser on iOS, whether it be badged Chrome, Firefox or Edge is actually just a branded skin of Safari, which lags behind [other browsers] because it has no competition on iOS."

Some Safari features that are not available to other browsers that use WebKit include the ability to display fullscreen video on ‌iPhone‌, install web apps, use browser extensions, and integrate Apple Pay. Developers are also frustrated that iOS forces Safari to be used in all instances of in-app browsing. These and more than 30 other missing functions or APIs for WebKit are outlined in the OWA's "Bringing Competition to Walled Gardens" paper.

Apple argues that WebKit limitations are motivated primarily by security and privacy considerations, but Lawson belives Apple's handling of Safari bugs makes a mockery of that claim.

"Over Christmas, there was a huge bug in something called IndexedDB," said Lawson. "That allowed any arbitrary website to see other websites you visited. Not all of them but those that use certain browser features. And that remained unpatched by Apple for 57 days. So for 57 days, every iOS user who used any web browser on iOS – because it was using WebKit – was leaking data left, right and center. If Apple actually did fix security errors fast, that would be a plausible defense, but they don't."

The OWA says it has been communicating with the UK's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which has already heavily criticized Apple's policies around WebKit.

The OWA is now urging Apple users to contact regulators and legislators in other jurisdictions to galvanize support and force Apple to end its restrictions around WebKit, although such a move could make sideloading apps from the web a real possibility, and that is something Apple appears equally reluctant to allow.

Tags: Safari, WebKit

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Top Rated Comments

5aga Avatar
31 months ago
Would be nice to have the real version of Firefox on iOS
Score: 29 Votes (Like | Disagree)
inket Avatar
31 months ago
So the goal here is to allow Chrome dominance on all platforms so that all web developers stop caring about other browsers reinforcing Chrome's position even more?

Chrome is already a resource-hog with a truckload of useless features. It's Google's attempt to get everyone to use it as an OS, because they're still sad they didn't get in on the OS boom of the 90s.

The future we're striving for is one where an advertising company controls the whole web. They're already 3 years behind on blocking third-party cookies because they don't want to hit their ad business. I mean, I wouldn't intentionally kill my cash cows either.

Go ahead, login to your Google account in Chrome so that their tracking and data-mining is even more effective. Leave WebKit alone.
Score: 22 Votes (Like | Disagree)
jdmachogg Avatar
31 months ago
100% - Apple forcing everyone to use WebKit is extremely limiting and makes alternative browsers almost pointless. WebKit sucks.
Score: 20 Votes (Like | Disagree)
seanmills1020 Avatar
31 months ago
I demand that Apple allows Netscape Navigator for iOS.
Score: 12 Votes (Like | Disagree)
bchah Avatar
31 months ago
I develop a webapp which uses WebRTC in the browser extensively. The implementation of WebRTC on Safari/WebKit is so poor and seems to introduce new issues with every release. It's frustrating spending so much time debugging in Safari and reducing features to try and preserve the user experience, when Chrome / Edge / Firefox all work without a hitch. The endgame is that small web developers who should be thriving on iOS have to use the Apple-provided dev tools and publishing platform to really reach users. Somewhere along the way, the web browser became a second-class citizen for Apple.
Score: 11 Votes (Like | Disagree)
gnomeisland Avatar
31 months ago
As much as I agree with the arguments laid out, “other web browsers” really just means Chrome (or some variation of it). Do we really want to hand the future of web development over to Google? Without Mobile Safari, Chrome dominates web use in way to makes IE in the 90’s look like weak sauce, and Google has both a vest interest in controlling the web and poor history of “self regulating” user privacy.

I hope this at least gets Apple to cut into their healthy profit margins by spending some resources on getting Safari up to speed as well as allow real parity between 1st and 3rd party apps/browser on iOS. I look forward to a world where iOS allows true 3rd party browsers but I hope that world only comes after there is meaningful competition in the browser space.
Score: 11 Votes (Like | Disagree)