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Google works on Blink-based iOS browser contrary to Apple's WebKit rule

Chocolate Factory insists project is an internal testing tool, isn't extending middle finger at Cupertino

Google's Chromium developers have begun work on an experimental web browser for Apple's iOS using the search giant's Blink engine.

That's unexpected because the current version of Chrome for iOS uses Apple's WebKit rendering engine under the hood. Apple requires every iOS browser to use WebKit and its iOS App Store Review Guidelines state, "Apps that browse the web must use the appropriate WebKit framework and WebKit Javascript."

So Google's project, a content_shell iOS port, would not be allowed on iOS if it were turned into a release-ready browser. Yet, Google, for some reason, is pursuing this.

Apple's rules have been a sore point among competitors and the web development community for years. Critics have argued that Apple's browser restrictions – which turn every iOS browser into a Safari clone, more or less – make web applications less capable and less attractive. That steers developers toward writing native platform apps for iOS, over which Apple has gatekeeping and monetary powers.

Over the past two years, however, Apple's platform autarchy has become more fragile as legal and regulatory challenges have proliferated.

The latest questioning of Apple's authority came from the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which has just issued a report calling for changes to the mobile app ecosystem to promote competition.

The NTIA report echoes concerns raised by other regulators like the UK Competition and Markets Authority, and competition authorities in Australia and Japan. What's more, the European Digital Markets Act, which comes into effect next year, is expected to force Apple to allow third-party app stores and perhaps to alter its WebKit requirement.

Google presumably is aware of the possibility of pending changes but the company insists there's nothing to see here. The creator of the bug report describing the project explained, "This experimental application will be used to measure graphics and input latencies by providing traces for analysis," adding that the content_shell application is "experimental only, not a launch bug for a shippable product."

A Google spokesperson offered a similar response. "This is an experimental prototype that we are developing as part of an open source project with the goal to understand certain aspects of performance on iOS," a spokesperson told The Register. "It will not be available to users and we'll continue to abide by Apple's policies."

But if Apple's policies change, as reports suggest may happen, Google at least will have the tooling in place to evaluate a Blink-based version of Chrome on iOS.

There may be more to it, though. The Register spoke with an individual familiar with browser development who said content_shell is more than just a test suite. "It is a minimal browser application," we were told. "It's the start of a browser port."

It is a minimal browser application. It's the start of a browser port

Our source explained that based on the visible code commits, this looks like the start of an alternate browser build, though in skeletal form – but it's crucially missing sandboxing, JIT support in V8, and is trying to implement a minimal graphics stack. It's a toy for now, but won't necessarily remain so.

The possibility of a regime change, however, has to be tempered by Apple's minimalist approach to compliance – enacting policies that conform to the letter of the law without ceding meaningful ecosystem control or significantly reducing its taxing authority.

For example, the intervention of authorities in the Netherlands last year managed to get Apple to reduce its app commission – just on dating apps – from 30 percent (for those in the $1m+ annual revenue tier) to 27 percent. Also last year, regulators in South Korea began investigating whether Apple and Google were trying to skirt rules requiring the mobile platform rent-seekers to allow third-party payment systems.

Also, Apple has been accused of "malicious compliance" in the context of right-to-repair laws. It saddles would-be home device fixers participating in the company's repair program with a $1,200 security deposit on 79 pounds of shipped tools, just to change an iPhone battery.

One way such behavior might be expressed in the context of iOS browser rules would be if Apple adopted different requirements for different geographies. That would force Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and other browser makers to bear the cost of maintaining iOS browser builds for multiple rendering engines.

Nonetheless, the Chromium team's iOS Blink project has raised hopes among those who seek freedom from Apple's oversight. Open Web Advocacy, a group of developers who have lobbied for changes to Apple's policies, told The Register, "While Google has the money to invest in projects that might not be allowed to reach users, the timing of this feels very significant."

"The NTIA report on February 1 recommended that US Congress pass legislation to end the Apple Browser Ban (Apple’s effective ban on competitive browsers on iOS), in line with the EU's Digital Markets Act, and recommendations from the UK's Competition and Market Authority, the Australian ACCC and the Japanese HDMC," the group said.

"Finally, it looks like Apple's customers will be able to benefit from actual browser choice and competition, which is bound to benefit the Safari team, iOS users, web developers and anyone who does business on the web." ®

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