Bruce Lawson’s personal site

Set Safari free!

As you may know, every browser on iOS is actually just a branded re-skin of WebKit, the engine that Safari uses, because Apple won’t allow other engines on iOS.

Fred from Scooby Doo with a masked figure and text 'Firefox on iPhone'. Fred removes the mask to reveal the villain headed 'Apple's Safari'. Then the same with Edge on iPhone and Chrome on iPhone.

Supporters of the Apple Browser Ban tend to give one of three reasons (listed here from most ridiculous to most credible):

The web shouldn’t be “app-like”, it’s for documents only

Whatever. (See A Brief History of Web Apps for more on why this is nonsense.)

Privacy and security are protected by not allowing non-Apple code on devices

This doesn’t really make sense when non-Apple apps are allowed on iOS, which can leak data so valuable that Amazon and eBay will pay you to use their apps rather than web. Apple’s most recent zero-day vulnerability was exploited along with a flaw in WebKit, and so left all users exposed because users of other “browsers” are forced to use WebKit. Stuart Langridge has a great post going deeper into Browser choice on Apple’s iOS: privacy and security aspects.

Allowing other rendering engines leads to Chromium taking over the world

This one kind of makes sense. After all, Opera abandoned its Presto engine and Microsoft abandoned Trident, and both went to Chromium. Firefox risks sliding into irrelevance due to inept lack of leadership. If Apple were forced to allow Chrome onto iOS, then domination would be complete!

The interesting predicate of this argument is that Apple intend to keep Safari as the sad, buggy app that they’ve allowed it to wither to, because it has no competition. I emphatically do not want Chromium to win. Quite the opposite: I want Apple to allow the WebKit team to raise its game so there is an *excellent* competitor to Chromium.

WebKit is available on Windows, Linux and more. Safari was once available on Windows, but Apple silently withdrew it. SVP of software Eddy Cue, who reports directly to Tim Cook, wrote in 2013

The reason we lost Safari on Windows is the same reason we are losing Safari on Mac. We didn’t innovate or enhance Safari….We had an amazing start and then stopped innovating… Look at Chrome. They put out releases at least every month while we basically do it once a year.

There is browser choice on MacOS, and 63% of MacOS users remain with Safari (24% use Chrome, 5.6% use Firefox). As everyone who works on browsers knows, a capable browser made by the Operating System’s manufacturer and pre-installed greatly deters users from seeking and installing another. There is no reason to believe it would be different on iOS. (Internet Explorer on Windows isn’t a counter-example; there were much better alternatives, long before Edge came along.)

But let’s set out aspirations higher. Imagine a fantastic Safari on iOS, Mac, Windows and Linux, giving Chrome a run for its money. If anyone can take on Google, Apple can. It has talented WebKit engineers, excellent Standards experts, a colossal marketing budget, and great brand recognition.

If Apple allowed Safari to actually compete, it would be better for web developers, businesses, consumers, and for the health of the web. Come on, Apple, set Safari free!

(You could also read my Briefing to the UK Competition and Markets Authority on Apple’s iOS browser monopoly and Progressive Web Apps.)

4 Responses to “ Set Safari free! ”

Comment by Matt

If Apple allowed Safari to actually compete, it would be better for web developers, businesses, consumers, and for the health of the web.

Disagree – it would result in a ton of sites growing “Best In Chrome” popups (and not working at all in Safari), like in the Bad Old Days of IE6.

Right now, if a site wants iOS users they _have_ to deal with Safari compatibility.

Comment by Bruce

I do agree with you that Safari currently is like the bad old days of IE6. But I’m not buying the rest of your argument, Matt. Firstly, because iOS users are amongst the richest consumers, so no business is going to stop catering to them. And, also, if Apple invested in Safari and made it *good*, why would people show “Best in Chrome” popups?

Comment by The Dude

I need a web browser that works on all platforms, because I want them to sync information. I use Edge, regardless of the underlying engine as it syncs on everything. I used to use Safari when it had a Windows version, but when they abandoned it I moved to Chrome, and now Edge. I’d only ever move to Safari if they compete on Windows as well.

Comment by Peter

Let’s say I want a new feature for the Web. I would build it in WebKit, so that Chrome on iPhones has that feature, almost forcing blink to implement it so that Chrome has that feature everywhere.

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