EU-turn! Now Apple says it won't banish Home Screen web apps in Europe

So, er, how will WebKit-only applications work under latest Euro antitrust laws? Anyone? Tim?

Apple has reversed its decision to limit the functionality of Home Screen web apps in Europe following an outcry from the developer community and the prospect of further investigation.

"We have received requests to continue to offer support for Home Screen web apps in iOS, therefore we will continue to offer the existing Home Screen web apps capability in the EU," the iPhone giant said in an update to its developer documentation on Friday.

"This support means Home Screen web apps continue to be built directly on WebKit and its security architecture, and align with the security and privacy model for native apps on iOS."

Apple said Home Screen web app support would return with the general availability of iOS 17.4, presently in beta testing and due in the next few days.

The Mac titan's decision to nix Home Screen web apps, also known as Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), on iOS devices in European Union member states came as a surprise last month, as the March 6, 2024 deadline to comply with Europe's Digital Markets Act (DMA) approached.

The DMA consists of a set of rules intended to promote competition in European markets that have been dominated by large technology companies. Last September, the European Commission designated six gatekeepers – Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, ByteDance, Meta, and Microsoft – and required them to take steps to accommodate rivals.

In January, Apple said it would make several changes to its iOS operating system to comply with the law. These include: Allowing third-party app stores; making its NFC hardware accessible to third-party developers for contactless payment applications; and supporting third-party browser engines as alternatives to Safari's WebKit.

Last month, with the second beta release of iOS 17.4, it became clear Apple would impose a cost for its concessions. The iCloud goliath said, "to comply with the DMA's requirements, we had to remove the Home Screen web apps feature in the EU."

Essentially, Apple has to support third-party browser engines in the EU, the biz didn't want PWAs to use those non-WebKit engines, and so it chose to just banish the web apps from its Home Screen. Now it's changed its mind and allowed the apps to stay albeit using WebKit.

Cupertino's attempt to scuttle PWAs [is] a shocking attempt to keep the web from ever emerging as a true threat

For those not in the know: The Home Screen web apps feature refers to one of the capabilities afforded to Progressive Web Apps that makes them perform and appear more like native iOS apps. It allows web apps or websites to be opened from an iOS device and take over the whole screen, just like a native app, instead of loading within a browser window. Seemingly minor interface changes like this often have a major impact on app usage and user perception.

Other capabilities would also be lost with the removal of Home Screen web apps from iOS. As noted last week by Alex Russell, partner product manager on Microsoft Edge and a long-time advocate for web technology from his days at Google, Apple's demotion of Home Screen web apps broke settings integration, browser storage, push notifications, icon badging, share-to-PWA, app shortcuts, and device APIs.

"Cupertino's attempt to scuttle PWAs under cover of chaos is exactly what it appears to be: a shocking attempt to keep the web from ever emerging as a true threat to the App Store and blame regulators for Apple's own malicious choices," Russell wrote.

Open Web Advocacy (OWA), a lobbying group for web developers, decried Apple's earlier decision, citing concerns raised by members that the changes would break their web applications. The group also penned an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook urging him to reconsider. The letter points out "that Apple’s proposed changes violate Article 13 of the DMA which prohibits anti-circumvention efforts by designated gatekeepers."

In response to Apple's about-face, OWA credited both vocal protests from developers and the reported decision by regulators to open an investigation into Apple's abandonment of Home Screen web app support.

Apple is still required to allow web apps to be powered by other browsers and their engines, and we will be pushing to ensure that happens

OWA welcomed Apple's concession but continues to argue that the American corporation needs to support a level playing field for web apps.

"This simply returns us back to the status quo prior to Apple's plan to sabotage web apps for the EU," the group said. "Apple’s over-a-decade suppression of the web in favor of the App Store continues worldwide, and their attempt to destroy web apps in the EU is just their latest attempt.

"If there is to be any silver lining, it is that this has thoroughly exposed Apple’s genuine fear of a secure, open and interoperable alternative to their proprietary App Store that they can not control or tax."

It remains to be seen how Euro watchdogs will reconcile the DMA's requirement that Apple support alternative browsers (and browser engines) and Apple's disputed insistence that it can only accommodate Home Screen web apps using Safari's WebKit engine.

"Apple are not known for backing down, so clearly their lawyers must have decided they were on shaky ground," the OWA said in a statement to The Register.

"While this is a victory that their plan to sabotage web apps in the EU has been stopped, the fight to allow other browsers to compete fairly on iOS including in the powering of web apps continues. This merely brings us back to the status quo of a month ago. Apple is still required to allow web apps to be powered by other browsers and their engines, and we will be pushing to ensure that happens." ®

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