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.
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.