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Apple's grip on iOS browser engines disallowed under latest draft EU rules

Leaked Digital Markets Act language forbids limiting of Safari rivals

Special report Europe's Digital Markets Act – near-finalized legislation to tame the internet's gatekeepers – contains language squarely aimed at ending Apple's iOS browser restrictions.

The Register has received a copy of unpublished changes in the proposed act, and among the various adjustments to the draft agreement is the explicit recognition of "web browser engines" as a service that should be protected from anti-competitive gatekeeper-imposed limitations.

Apple requires that competing mobile browsers distributed through the iOS App Store use its own WebKit rendering engine, which is the basis of its Safari browser. The result is that Chrome, Edge, and Firefox on iOS are all, more or less, Safari.

That requirement has been a sore spot for years among rivals like Google, Mozilla, and Microsoft. They could not compete on iOS through product differentiation because their mobile browsers had to rely on WebKit rather than their own competing engines.

And Apple's browser engine requirement has vexed web developers, who have been limited to using only the web APIs implemented in WebKit for their web apps. Many believe this barrier serves to steer developers toward native iOS app development, which Apple controls.

The extent to which Apple profits from the status quo has prompted regulatory scrutiny in Europe, the UK, the US, and elsewhere. Blog posts from web tech advocates like Alex Russell, Epic Games' antitrust complaint against Apple, and lobbying efforts like the formation of Open Web Advocacy have ensured that regulatory remedies being formulated to address allegations of anticompetitive behavior by Apple consider the impact of browser engine restrictions.

Now those efforts have been translated into the text of the DMA, which, alongside the Digital Services Act (DSA), defines how large technology gatekeepers will be governed in Europe. Here's one relevant passage:

Certain services offered together with or in support of relevant core platform services of the gatekeeper, such as identification services, web browser engines, payment services or technical services that support the provision of payment services, such as payment systems for in-app purchases, are crucial for business users to conduct their business and allow them to optimize services.

In particular, each browser is built on a web browser engine, which is responsible for key browser functionality such as speed, reliability and web compatibility. When gatekeepers operate and impose browser engines, they are in a position to determine the functionality and standards that will apply not only to their own web browsers, but also to competing web browsers and, in turn, to web software applications.

Gatekeepers should therefore not use their position as undertakings providing core platform services to require their dependent business users to use any of those services provided by the gatekeeper itself as part of the provision of services or products by these business users.

In short, when the DMA takes effect in 2024, it appears that Apple will be required to allow browser competition on iOS devices.

"Article 5 point (e) has been expanded to capture instances where the gatekeeper requires business users to offer or interoperate with a web browser engine," wrote Damien Geradin, founding partner of competition law firm Geradin Partners, in a blog post last week.

"This is most likely meant to address Apple's policy of requiring all browsers running on iOS to utilize Apple's WebKit browser engine – a policy which the UK CMA has recently found may have restricted the development of web apps, among others."

Digital Markets Act nearly final language

Close to the edit ... The revisions made to the Digital Markets Act text

Alex Russell, partner program manager on Microsoft Edge who worked previously as Google Chrome's first web standards tech lead, has written several posts about the need for browser competition over the past year. He told The Register that if the DMA language has the effect that web advocates hope, the result will transform software – not just iOS browsers on iOS devices.

"The potential for a capable web has been all but extinguished on mobile because Apple has successfully prevented it until now," said Russell. "Businesses and services will be able to avoid building 'apps' entirely when enough users have capable browsers."

The long and winding road

However, he notes that Apple isn't necessarily going to change its ways.

"There's a long road between here and there," he said. "Apple has spent enormous amounts to lobby on this, and they aren't stupid. Everyone should expect them to continue to play games along the lines of what they tried in Denmark and South Korea."

Indeed, Apple's efforts to avoid complying with demands made by the Netherlands' Authority for Consumers & Markets indicate the company may be slow to comply with the DMA's forthcoming web browser engine requirements.

"The details of what it takes to credibly port a competitive browser are intricate and highly technical, and Apple will have many chances to prevaricate and delay, as they so often have," argued Russell.

"Lastly, the DMA language seems somewhat ambiguous about the shenanigans that Apple, Google, and Facebook are playing about browser choice and In-App Browsers. Mobile has broken the web in many ways, and they all need to be repaired."

A web developer who goes by the name Matthew Thomas and participates in the Open Web Advocacy group, told The Register that he expects Apple will resist to the extent that it can.

"Apple knows that before 2024 they will be forced to allow third party engines, which means they will have to invest deeply in Safari to make it competitive," said Thomas. "Other browsers can bring features that Safari doesn't have. That will put pressure on Apple to add those features; otherwise developers will push their users to move browsers."

Thomas said hopefully the DMA rules will make web apps competitive with native apps. And if that happens, he suggests interest in native apps may decline – which coincidentally is the fear that led Microsoft to try to eliminate the Netscape browser in the late 1990s.

Thomas proposed this thought experiment: "Once web apps work properly across all devices and can provide native-like functionality, how many companies will choose to rebuild their app several times (with the vastly increased development and maintenance costs) [for multiple platforms] rather than just build it once [for the web]."

The Register asked Apple for comment. We did not expect a reply, nor have we received one. And yet Apple clearly recognizes that it cannot simultaneously avoid antitrust regulation by pointing to web apps as competition to native iOS apps while requiring the use of a browser engine that outsiders believe is holding back the web.

Apple has been actively hiring to fill out its WebKit team and currently has 37 related job openings posted. Jen Simmons, evangelist on the web developer experience team for Safari and WebKit, has been soliciting input on WebKit bugs that need attention, calling out issues that have already been addressed, and touting recent API additions that make WebKit more capable. And Safari's release cadence has accelerated.

Thomas is fine with that. He said one of Open Web Advocacy's reasons for lobbying regulators to ensure that Safari gets properly funded.

"Apple would not be willing to invest in Safari without the threat of competition," he said. ®

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