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Safari is crippling the mobile market, and we never even noticed
With web apps, Apple insists on taking the pith helmet
Opinion It has been 14 years since Apple opened its App Store with its shiny shopfront of tempting toys and gloomy back office of rules and rentier revenues, but only now has the proposed EU Digital Markets Act threatened to end Apple's web browser engine monopoly.
And even then, it's only by 2024, when the App Store will celebrate its 16th birthday. Nobody ever accused market regulators of warp speed.
You'd be forgiven for remembering a much earlier monopoly browser decision, that of Microsoft's bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows. The courts alleged that was (US v Microsoft Corp) that illegal and Microsoft finally settled in 2001, nine years after antitrust investigations had started into the company. Not that it made much difference, with only one update to Internet Explorer in the next four years due to lack of competition. As the web went wild, browser innovation stalled.
There are similarities between the two cases. Neither were about making money directly, both were about control, to stop anyone else from disrupting market dominance. Both relied on specious arguments, Apple about security, Microsoft about deep integration impossible to undo. There is one crucial difference, though. The Internet Explorer case was very important, but if the EU DMA browser engine proposal becomes law – that so-called "gatekeepers will have to refrain from imposing unfair conditions on businesses and consumers" – it will change the world.
It's a strong claim for what looks like a technical detail. While Microsoft worked hard to keep other browsers off Windows, Apple is happy to host Firefox, Chrome or anybody else. All it asks is that they use its Webkit browser engine to interact with the Web, render pages, and provide API support. As that's what browsers do, it gives Apple the same control as Microsoft, only snuggled coyly behind a fig leaf. More specifically, it gives Apple the same veto on innovation as Microsoft had, which is where what's under that fig leaf gets plenty ugly.
Who's it hurting?
So what? Mobile browsing is a pretty naff experience, and it hasn't held back the popularity of smartphones. All those adverts and awful overlays, pop-ups and cranky interfaces. A web service might be OK on the desktop, but on mobile the apps are better, right? Stands to reason.
This attitude is three things: perception, reality, and wrong. It's a perception because mobile browsing used to be terrible for good reasons: it was a primitive affair running on limited processors with little memory and slow networks. It's reality because, yes, it is still awful. It's wrong because there's been no good reason for this for at least five years. We accept it because we're conditioned to accept it, and Apple has been delighted to keep it that way.
Back on the desktop, the web in its cloudy guise dominates. You may not need to load a new native app to your desktop from spring to autumn, while you'll try hundreds of online services and come to rely on many. A panoply of extensions and add-ins exist to help us manage our time online.
The days have long passed when Chromebooks couldn't compete as decent deliverers of the digital life. But architecturally, a Chromebook is as much a big ol' mobile phone as it is a wee laptop. So why aren't mobile phones more like wee Chromebooks? The modern browser is a powerful platform in its own right, but you cannot build a modern browser on the antique engine in Apple's iOS Safari. And Apple won't let you use anything else.
There is no good reason for this. All the bits are there for a truly modern mobile browser experience, but we're stuck with a valueless friend. Apple makes ever more insanely powerful chips and dramatic hardware specs, but the web access software – way more important to most sane users – fossilizes. The modern iPhone has the literal computing power of a supercomputer from 2001 and the web experience of a desktop PC from 2011. We think that's natural. It's not. It's Apple poisoning the market.
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There's a reason PC app stores are moribund, and it's that browsers do the job of delivering software. Mobile app stores would go the same way, if mobile browsers did the same job – and without people needing to use the Apple App Store. This would mean, though, that Apple would lose the primary differentiator of its mobile brand. It would lose control of the revenue streams. It would lose control of what services are acceptable. In short, it would lose control.
The rest of us, freed from the misapprehension that mobile web is woeful web, would gain hugely. While users, developers, and enterprises are conditioned to think that native apps are naturally superior, we accept the cost of building and maintaining iOS and Android variants, and see the web option as extra work for inferior results.
With that issue gone, you could build a single app and host it, all without the bureaucracy and cost of App and Play stores. Users, meanwhile, could finally choose whatever handset they like without compromising on choice or quality of experience, and without the wrench of changing a complete ecosystem. Oh, and the ongoing daftness of mobile emulation on desktops could be allowed a dignified death.
How about the security, rogue program filtration, and guarantees of experience that the app store gatekeepers provide?
Modern browser and OS security has come a long way in those 14 years of the App Store's existence: there are plenty of ways to keep safe online, and plenty of ways to go wrong on a mobile, even today. The mobile app stores won't go away, if we want them. Increasingly, we won't. It's called choice.
You can see why the Webkit browser engine, far from being an obscure component, is the guardian of a great deal of Apple's market dominance. It's been quite a trick, keeping that secret in plain sight, and quite a trick for the EU to quietly slip a few words that can end it all into proposed law.
Market regulators may not travel at warp speed, but they can pack some world-busting bombs. It's not law yet: Apple isn't short of its own lobbying firepower, and it knows it's in danger of being nuked from orbit.
Watch this story. There will be fireworks. ®