Oh look, cracking down on Big Tech works. Brave, Firefox, Vivaldi surge on iOS

Thanks to Europe forcing Apple to offer a browser choice screen. Now, about ditching WebKit ...

Since Apple implemented a browser choice screen for iPhones earlier this month to comply with Europe's Digital Markets Act (DMA), Brave Software, Mozilla, and Vivaldi have seen a surge in the number of people installing their web browsers.

It's an early sign the Europe Union's competition rules may actually … get this … enhance competition – an outcome that skeptics deemed unlikely.

The DMA applies to a set of six technology giants that have been designated as "gatekeepers" in order to limit their tendency to boost the usage of their own offerings – such as their own browsers, webmail, and marketplaces – to the detriment of rivals, which are pushed out of the way.

This walloping of competitors, which slashes choice and innovation, is usually achieved through default settings, contractual requirements, and other mechanisms that favor the big players over smaller upstarts. Apple and Google, as two of those gatekeeper firms, must now under Euro law make concessions to competitors to avoid further harm.

As a direct result of Europe's DMA, Apple announced plans to implement a browser choice screen on iOS devices in January.

For Google, the DMA compliance means a browser choice screen and search choice screen on Android smartphones and tablets during device setup, as well as a search choice screen for its Chrome browser on non-Android platforms.

Choice screens can be an effective way to reduce market dominance. For example: in 2010, when Microsoft was required to provide a browser choice screen in Windows in Europe, Opera reported that its download numbers had doubled.

In 2019, Margrethe Vestager, then European commissioner for competition, defended the value of choice screens, which Google was implementing to comply with a 2018 EU competition ruling.

"We've seen in the past that a choice screen can be an effective way to promote user choice," observed Vestager following the EU's third antitrust fine against Google. "In the Google Android case, it has the potential to give users a real choice about what search provider and browser they want on Android devices. This would also allow Google's rivals to be chosen upfront by users in cases where Google has been pre-installed on a phone."

Yet the auction-based choice mechanism Google rolled out that year didn't work well, and Google ended up changing it in 2021.

Three years on, efforts to create a level playing field for platform gatekeepers and smaller rivals continue – possibly with some progress.

Brave's figures suggest the number of daily browser installs jumped from around 8,000 on March 6, 2024 to around 11,000 a week later. And in a social media post, the developer cited those results as evidence that Apple and Google have made it hard to switch default browsers specifically to block competition.

"Monopoly defenders argue that the monopolies simply offer better products," Brave declared. "But as you can see, when consumers get a clear choice of iOS browsers, they're choosing alternatives to Safari. Maybe that's why Google still hasn't implemented a browser choice screen on Android."

Google in January said it would offer search engine and browser choice screens per the DMA's requirements "on or after March 6, 2024." The search biz did not immediately respond to a request to provide an update on its choice screen rollout, which will only be offered on a subset of Android devices in the EU.

When consumers get a clear choice of iOS browsers, they're choosing alternatives to Safari

Brendan Eich, CEO and co-founder of Brave Software, told The Register in an email that Brave for iOS is presently based on WebKit (per Apple's historic requirement), but his outfit is looking into the possibility of developing a Chromium-based version of Brave for iOS now that Apple has opened the door – at least on paper – to non-WebKit browsers on iOS in Europe.

For most of us, Apple requires browsers on iOS to use Cupertino's WebKit engine – Europe has strong-armed the iGiant into ditching that stipulation in its region.

"If Google does the upstream iOS work and shares it via Chromium/Blink open source, this opens up more options," according to Eich. "If Apple forbids using this alternative engine outside of Europe, however, the cost of supporting two engines may be prohibitive."

"Brave is about putting the users first in all ways, including default browser choices they may not know they can make," Eich added. "We're thrilled to see that users in Europe are now given the option to choose their default browsers on iOS and we hope to see things evolve on Android, as well as in other regions of the world."

Mozilla also has seen increased interest in Firefox as a result of the DMA choice screen for iOS devices.

"The monopolistic practices employed by Big Tech have often hindered Firefox's ability to innovate and offer users competitive alternatives," a Moz spokesperson told The Register. "It is no small feat for us to cut through their tricky tactics to keep consumers locked within their own ecosystems.

"Despite less than ideal compliance, the recent implementation of the DMA choice screen is a promising step toward true competition online in the EU, which is why we're not surprised to have seen a more than 50 percent increase in Firefox user growth in Germany and close to 30 percent increase in France just since its implementation. Still, there is a lot of room for improvement, and we'll continue to fight for a web that puts people over profits, prioritizes privacy and is open and accessible to all."

It is no small feat for us to cut through their tricky tactics to keep consumers locked within their own ecosystems

Asked about the status of a Gecko-based Firefox for iOS, now that Apple has technically opened the door to using browser engines other than Safari's WebKit, Mozilla's spokesperson pointed to a prior statement about the limitations of Apple's concessions.

"We are still reviewing the technical details but are extremely disappointed with Apple's proposed plan to restrict the newly-announced BrowserEngineKit to EU-specific apps," Mozilla's spokesperson lamented. "The effect of this would be to force an independent browser like Firefox to build and maintain two separate browser implementations – a burden Apple itself will not have to bear.

"Apple's proposals fail to give consumers viable choices by making it as painful as possible for others to provide competitive alternatives to Safari. This is another example of Apple creating barriers to prevent true browser competition on iOS."

Jon von Tetzchner, CEO of browser maker Vivaldi, told The Register in a phone interview that while the European Commission's intervention has been helpful, the results have been modest – and he expects further pressure will need to be applied to gatekeepers.

"We've seen a change, but we haven't seen a massive change," he remarked. "We are seeing a choice screen that is problematic in very many ways. And one of the ways that is problematic, for example for us, is that we are in eight countries out of 26 and they're excluding countries like Norway and Iceland, which are kind of part of the extended European kind of area."

Von Tetzchner criticized the way the browser choice screen has been implemented, noting that the user has to first click on Safari before being presented with the choice screen that provides non-Safari options. He also observed that if a user has gone ahead and chosen a default browser that's not listed on Apple's choice screen, when iOS next presents the choice screen, it won't include the user's already designated browser.

He expects Apple will be asked to make further accommodations, based on the fact that it has already had to backtrack several times.

The point is to create a level playing ground. I think it's very clear that there isn't a level playing ground with this

"The point of all of this is to create competition," noted von Tetzchner. "The point of this is there are certain companies that are gatekeepers that cannot control access to other applications with which they compete. And the point is to create a level playing ground. I think it's very clear that there isn't a level playing ground with this."

Von Tetzchner told us he hasn't seen Google's choice screen, because it hasn't debuted yet.

"I've been told by Google that it's something that they came to an agreement about with the European Commission and the fact that I got that from Google is one of the differences that we see with different organizations here. We actually have a contact at Google. They have a contact with Microsoft and we've still not managed to get any contact at Apple, which is rather special."

According to von Tetzchner, Cupertino has been telling the European Commission that no one will talk to Apple, when it's the opposite situation.

"We've been trying really hard to get hold of anyone at Apple who will talk to us," he said. "And that's not happening. And again, I'm hearing the same from the other browser makers."

We're told that Apple, Google, and Microsoft all have meetings scheduled with EU regulators in the next two weeks. ®

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