Why Third-Party Browsers on the iPhone Is a Big Deal

  • In iOS 17.4, Apple will allow full versions of third-party browsers like Chrome and Firefox on the iPhone.
  • But only for users in the EU.
  • The current iOS versions of Chrome browser are just Safari with some fancy decoration.


Google Chrome Browser.

Firmbee.com / Unsplash



Thanks to the EU’s new laws designed to reign in bullying, overreaching tech companies, Apple will soon allow alternative browsers on the iPhone. And these are the proper versions, not the watered-down Chrome- and Firefox-shaped skins on Safari that have been available until now.


The Digital Markets Act (DMA) is the EU’s far-reaching legislation to force Big Tech to open up its closed platforms and to better respect users’ privacy. It’s a huge set of laws, which we shall surely be coming back to over the next few months, but today, we’re looking at the new requirement that forces Apple to allow alternative browsers on the iPhone. This, as we shall see, could have some big advantages for users, as well as some downsides. Let’s dig in.


“While there are currently several web browsers on iOS, they’re all using Safari’s rendering engine, WebKit, under the hood. That’s because Apple doesn’t allow other browser engines on the platform, period. This will change in the EU, which means that (for example) Google Chrome on the iPhone in Europe could use Google’s rendering engine. This has intriguing web-app implications since some web apps just don’t run on Safari but do run on Chrome, Firefox, and Edge,” long-time Apple journalist Jason Snell writes on his Six Colors blog.



Just Browsing

The big difference is that Apple now allows third-party rendering engines in browsers. Even though you can download Chrome for the iPhone and iPad today, under the hood it still uses Safari’s Webkit engine to actually render the web page. Whereas on your Mac, PC, or Chromebook, the the Chrome browser uses Google’s Blink rendering engine. This engine is what takes the raw HTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc., and turns it into text, runs any included software code, and so on. It’s like a miniature operating system that lives inside the browser.



Until now, Apple has had absolute control of all the code that runs on your iPhone or iPad, which is why this is such a big deal. To get an idea of how much a browser can do, just think about a Chromebook, which is pretty much a computer that does everything in a web browser.


The version of Chrome that you can get today is just Safari wrapped in Chrome features. You can sync with desktop Chrome, but you cannot run Chrome plugins, and websites that only work in Chrome won’t run here. The same goes for Firefox.


The advantages are clear. If your default browser is Chrome on your Mac or PC, or if you run a Chromebook but prefer an iPhone to Android, everything will, in theory, match up. The catch is that you’ll have to be in the EU to take advantage of this.



Choice

And you’ll get access to features that Safari just doesn’t have. Web MIDI, for example, is a standard that lets you use a MIDI piano keyboard to play browser-based instruments. Websites also use it to interact with and change settings on hardware musical instruments. Safari doesn’t support WebMIDI on any platform, full stop. On the Mac, you can just fire up Chrome when you need it. Soon, you’ll have the same option on your iPhone.


There are downsides, too. One is that Chrome is notorious for fast-draining your laptop battery, which could carry over. Another is that Chrome is disrespectful of your privacy compared to Safari. However, Apple will mitigate the privacy and security angles through some strict rules that apply to third-party browsers.



iPhone.

do you mockup / Mockup Photos



The first of these rules is that developers must apply for an “entitlement” to allow them to put their browsers on the platform. This obviously means Chrome, Microsoft, and Firefox, but it applies to anyone else who wants to include, say, the Chrome engine in their app.


There are also plenty of requirements for app features. They must block cross-site cookies, for example, and not share identifiers that can be used for tracking users.


The rules are pretty tight, with the result that Chrome on iOS might end up being the safest version of Chrome anywhere. That, combined with the possibility of getting Chrome’s full feature set, or close to it, on iOS, looks like a real win for users, despite Apple’s kvetching to the contrary.


“In 2024, none of the major third-party browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Vivaldi) support something as basic as displaying a Favorites Bar in their iPad browsers,” said MacStories founder and editor Federico Viticci on Mastodon. “A… favorites bar. They’re all stuck in a pre-iPad Pro world.”


Still, this is a great example of the benefits of regulation in tech, and hopefully, the US government will take a page from Europe and stop letting big tech do whatever it likes.

By 111 Tech

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