In its tantrum with Europe, Apple broke web apps in iOS 17 beta, still hasn't fixed them

PWAs demoted to OWB: Operating Within Browser

Apple has argued for years that developers who don't want to abide by its rules for native iOS apps can always write web apps.

It has done so in its platform guidelines, in congressional testimony, and in court. Web developers, for their part, maintain that Safari and its underlying WebKit engine still lack the technical capabilities to allow web apps to compete with native apps on iOS hardware. To this day, it's argued, the fruit cart's laggardly implementation of Push Notifications remains subpar.

The enforcement of Europe's Digital Markets Act was expected to change that – to promote competition held back by gatekeepers. But Apple, in a policy change critics have called "malicious compliance," appears to be putting web apps at an even greater disadvantage under the guise of compliance with European law.

In the second beta release of iOS 17.4, which incorporates code to accommodate Europe's Digital Markets Act, Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) have been demoted from standalone apps that use the whole screen to shortcuts that open within the default browser.

This appears to solely affect users in the European Union, though your mileage may vary.

Concerns about this demotion of PWAs surfaced earlier this month, with the release of the initial iOS 17.4 beta. As noted by Open Web Advocacy – a group that has lobbied to make the web platform more capable – "sites installed to the home screen failed to launch in their own top-level activities, opening in Safari instead."

PWAs are supposed to make web apps (sites) function more like native apps on mobile devices. They're supposed to be capable (through access to APIs for file system access, media controls, app badging, and full clipboard support), reliable (by functioning in the absence of a network connection), and installable (launchable from a home screen icon in their own standalone window instead of within a browser tab).

But the debut of iOS 17.4 beta 2 on Tuesday suggests the breakage of PWAs is deliberate. The Register understands Apple's change will cause users to lose local data in existing web apps, because web apps and Safari have different storage locations, and it will also break notifications, because there's no way to enable notifications without app installation.

Mysk, an iOS development business and occasional security research firm run by Talal Haj Bakry and Tommy Mysk, claims that Apple, rather than repairing PWAs, has doubled down by adding a pop-up menu as part of the interaction.

"Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) are still disabled for EU users in iOS 17.4 beta 2," lamented Mysk. "But now there's a new pop-up. The pop-up somehow indicates that PWAs are disabled intentionally, rather than being a bug."

Mysk also posted a video illustrating the change.

The Register asked Apple public relations – which tends not to respond to the public – whether the situation is really as bad as it looks. We've received no response.

"We considered that Apple might try something like this, but dismissed it as too blatantly anti-competitive even for them," noted Alex Moore, executive director of Open Web Advocacy. "Apple could come out and say this is unfinished or it's a bug, but if this functionality ever makes it onto users' devices, it will show that Apple is actively seeking to block the web from ever competing fairly with their App Store."

A veteran web technology developer at a Fortune 100 corporation, who asked not to be identified for lack of clearance to speak to the press, expressed disbelief to The Register and hoped that Apple will clarify the situation.

"First take: this is shocking and brazen, but it makes a certain sort of sense as a last-ditch effort to comply based on extremely negative feedback from announced plans," the developer told us.

"Second take: this can't possibly be right; it must be a placeholder for some unannounced API that they feel backed into. Doing what this looks like would be a nuclear bomb.

This is shocking and brazen, but it makes a certain sort of sense as a last-ditch effort to comply

"Third take: I'm not sure that reading the tea leaves matters much; this is entirely self-inflicted … they gave [those porting code] no time, no support, and no clarity.

"If it's what it looks like, it's a direct assault on the web and they deserve to be hoist by their own petard if the goal is to deny porting browsers any ability to be on the home screen with a scorched-earth 'if we can't control it, nobody can have it' approach."

In a message to The Register, Mysk said Apple has made numerous changes in iOS 17.4 to comply with the DMA rules in Europe – such as allowing browser engines other than Safari's WebKit.

"Safari has always been the only browser that can run PWAs on iOS," the Mysk researchers explained. "Once a PWA is installed by tapping on 'Add to Home Screen,' they will run inside a Safari container or process, even if they were installed from a third-party browser."

Apple redecorates its iPhone prison to appease Europe


The Mysk crew said that when Apple first announced the changes to accommodate the DMA and released the initial iOS 17.4 beta, they were excited to see how PWAs perform on iOS with different browsers – something not previously allowed. But to their surprise, they found the PWA functionality had been removed for EU users.

"For PWAs to run, the browser has to create a component called a service worker," they explained. "It seems that Apple hasn't found a way to allow other browsers to create their own service workers without compromising the sandboxed nature of apps on iOS. And the only way to fulfill this DMA rule by the deadline in March is to disable PWAs for all browsers. And now all browsers are equal."

With the arrival of iOS 17.4 beta 2, PWA support is still disabled for EU users.

"Apple normally addresses the issues of temporarily removing features in beta releases in the release notes," Mysk stated. "The release notes of beta 1 and 2 didn't mention anything concerning PWAs, or web apps as Apple likes to call them. As the deadline of March 7 approaches, the chances that the feature gets re-enabled in time don't look good, but everything is open." ®

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