Why third-party browsers on iPhone matter

  • In iOS 17.4, Apple will allow full versions of third-party browsers such as Chrome and Firefox to be used on iPhone.
  • But only available to EU users.
  • The current version of Chrome for iOS is just Safari with a few bells and whistles.

Apple will soon allow alternative browsers on iPhones thanks to new European Union laws aimed at curbing bullying, overreaching tech companies. These are the correct versions, not the watered-down Chrome and Firefox-shaped skins used on Safari so far.

The Digital Markets Act (DMA) is far-reaching EU legislation aimed at forcing big tech companies to open up their closed platforms and better respect user privacy. It's a massive set of laws that we'll certainly be discussing again in the coming months, but today we're looking at the new requirements that force Apple to allow alternative browsers on iPhones. As we will see, this can have some great advantages for the user, but there are also some disadvantages. Let’s dig a little deeper.

"Although there are currently multiple web browsers on iOS, they all use Safari's rendering engine WebKit under the hood. This is because Apple does not allow other browser engines to be used on the platform. This will change in the EU, meaning ( For example) Google Chrome on European iPhones can use Google's rendering engine, which has interesting implications for web applications, as some web applications don't run on Safari but do on Chrome, Firefox and Edge." Jason Snell, an Apple reporter at the time, wrote an article on his Six Colors blog.

The biggest difference is that Apple now allows the use of third-party rendering engines in the browser. Although you can now download Chrome for iPhone and iPad, it actually still uses Safari's Webkit engine to render web pages. On a Mac, PC or Chromebook, the Chrome browser uses Google's Blink rendering engine. The engine takes raw HTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc. and converts it to text, runs any included software code, etc. It's like a tiny operating system that sits inside the browser.

By now, Apple has absolute control over all code running on an iPhone or iPad, which is why this is so important. To understand what a browser can do, just think about a Chromebook, which is a computer that can do almost anything you can do in a web browser.

The version of Chrome you can get today is just Safari with Chrome features included. You can sync with the desktop version of Chrome, but you can't run Chrome plug-ins, and sites that only run in Chrome won't work here. The same goes for Firefox.

The advantages are obvious. If your default browser on your Mac or PC is Chrome, or if you run a Chromebook but prefer an iPhone to Android, everything should theoretically match. The thing is you have to be in the EU to take advantage of this.

You can also use features not available in Safari. For example, Web MIDI is a standard that allows you to play browser-based instruments using a MIDI piano keyboard. It is also used by websites to interact with hardware instruments and change their settings. Safari does not support WebMIDI on any platform, period. On a Mac, you just launch Chrome when you need it. Soon, the same option will be available on your iPhone.

There are also disadvantages. One is that Chrome is notorious for draining laptop batteries quickly, and that's likely to continue. Another reason is that Chrome doesn't respect your privacy compared to Safari. However, Apple will mitigate privacy and security concerns with some strict rules that apply to third-party browsers.

The first rule is that developers must apply for "rights" that allow them to put browsers on the platform. This obviously refers to Chrome, Microsoft, and Firefox, but it also applies to anyone else who wants to include the Chrome engine in their applications.

There are also many requirements for application functionality. For example, they must block cross-site cookies and must not share identifiers that can be used to track users.

These rules are so strict that Chrome on iOS may end up being the most secure version of Chrome anywhere. Combined with the possibility of getting Chrome's full feature set, or close to it, on iOS, this seems like a real win for users, despite Apple's displeasure.

MacStories founder and editor Federico Viticci said on Mastodon: “By 2024, all major third-party browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Vivaldi) will not support something as basic as showing the favorites bar in the iPad browser . ” “A…favorite bar. They’re stuck in a pre-iPad Pro world.”

Still, this is a great example of the benefits of tech regulation, and hopefully the U.S. government will follow Europe's lead and stop letting big tech do whatever they want.