This is the third post in our series about Apple's Jan 25 Press Releases. We've previously shared our introduction and Part 1 on Alternative App stores. This time, we talk about Alternative Web Engines.

What is an "Alternative Web Engine"?

There are a number of web browsers available; you may be aware of Safari (Apple's offering), Edge (Microsoft's), Chrome (Google's), Firefox (Mozilla's) and more. The architecture of a browser tends to consist of the "Web Engine" and the "Rest of the browser". Think of the engine being like what runs the car - whereas the rest, in browser terms, is all the stuff that manages things like the buttons, the menus, settings, network retrieval, caching and so forth. The engines are complex, they are responsible for rendering the web pages. Due to their complexity, they often shared between browsers. For example, Chrome runs on an engine called "Blink"; so too does Microsoft Edge. Safari is built on WebKit, which itself was derived from the Linux Konqueror browser.

Why do we need alternative engines?

That's a great question. People tend to get attached to their browsers as opposed to their browser engines. Most people who can tell you what browser they use, won't be able to name its engine.

Web Standards change and improve all the time, so at any point in time one engine may have better support for a web technology than another. On my personal Mac for example, Google Meet works better on Chrome than it does on Safari. I don't know why, but I know it is the case.

But aren't Firefox and Chrome are already in the App Store?

They are, but they are mandated today to be built using Apple's supplied framework WebKit. Firefox on iOS, and Chrome on iOS use different engines that their desktop counterparts. And they aren't crazy about this. They would prefer to use their own engines.

And now they can?

Apple's 25 January announcements detail how developers can now publish alternative browsers, made with alternative web engines through the app store.

Should I care?

People's affiliation to their browser tends to be about features. For example: Syncing your Firefox bookmarks with your desktop is a browser feature, not really affected by the Engine. There are very odd occasions when interacting with a website isn't 100% correct, and changing to a different browser helps. Maybe having more than one browser on your phone has some uses, but the reasons aren't jumping out at us.

Is this Browser Wars 2.0?

Well, there's been some precedence here. Microsoft were forced to decouple Internet Explorer with Windows many years ago. Regulators felt that Microsoft owned too much of the user's experience by owning both the operating system and the browser. This is somewhat similar now; The vast majority of iOS users are using Safari. This makes Safari a very important browser to support for owners of websites. If Apple chose to not support a new web technology, in theory this could slow down adoption of this technology on a global scale. There's no indication this is the case, but that's the theory.

There was a time where owning the browser was very important. But a lot of this was around default search engines; Google pay Apple handsomely for example, to be the default search engine for Safari. We think this time around is different. An iPhone or an Android Phone tends to be a very personal device. More personal than a personal computer ever was. Owning the browser experience matters much less, given that Apple already "owns" the user if they are using iPhone; Google essentially "owns" the user if they are using an Android phone.

So, I'll soon be able to have lots of browsers? Awesome!

Well, before you jump on trying lots of browsers, there are some things you need to be aware of. Browsers are super important pieces of software. Remember, you use them to do your banking, manage passwords, store credit card information and more. A browser needs to be really secure. Most people just don't realise how important this is. A compromised browser installed on devices could be extremely valuable for fraudsters.

Apple have a considered this, and have included some restrictions:

  • They aren't opening this up worldwide. Remember this is to comply with upcoming EU law, so alternative browser engines will only be available to users in the EU.
  • There are strict guidelines that suppliers of alternative web engines will need to adhere to in order to be accepted into the store. Apple have a shopping list of requirements including passing industry-standard tests, committing to a secure software development life cycle, including auditing of the supply chain, and committing to responding to vulnerability disclosures in a fixed time span. If you want the detail, here's the Apple article on their developer portal

Those restrictions are quite strict.

They are. But remember what we said about the importance of security in a web browser. It's such an integral part of how you interact with your device. Today, if there's a vulnerability in Safari, it is within Apple's control to find, fix and issue an update, including responsible disclosure. The message is "Apple Care about your security". With third party web engines, things get difficult. Imagine a vulnerability in an alternative web engine. The end user doesn't really know or care that the engine was to blame; they would still think the fraud happened through their iPhone. And this would be impossible for Apple to message. It could be a PR disaster.

When the iPhone launched, lots of people said it would fail if it didn't support Adobe's Flash technology (remember that?). Apple steadfastly refused to support it citing their own analytics from MacOS and Safari - They said it was the single largest source of crashes on both platforms and they never allowed Flash to ruin the iPhone experience. This feels like the first time they've been made to blink on a stance like this.

Our Opinion

We guess Mozilla and Google will like this, a tiny proportion of the iOS Market still means a large amount of users. The EU may like it because (we assume) it meets the legal obligation. But we can't see users caring. Of all the changes in the January 25 Announcement; this is the hardest to explain (sorry for the long post!), yet may be the one that will garner the least attention.

Thanks for reading the Tapadoo blog. We've been building iOS and Android Apps since 2009. If your business needs an App, or you want advice on anything mobile, please get in touch