Apple says if you want to ship your own iOS browser engine in EU, you need to be there

Rival coders must have Euro-based staff to build and test non-WebKit surfing

Exclusive Apple's grudging accommodation of European law – allowing third-party browser engines on its mobile devices – apparently comes with a restriction that makes it difficult to develop and support third-party browser engines for the region.

The Register has learned from those involved in the browser trade that Apple has limited the development and testing of third-party browser engines to devices physically located in the EU. That requirement adds an additional barrier to anyone planning to develop and support a browser with an alternative engine in the EU.

It effectively geofences the development team. Browser-makers whose dev teams are located in the US will only be able to work on simulators. While some testing can be done in a simulator, there's no substitute for testing on device – which means developers will have to work within Apple's prescribed geographical boundary.

Prior to iOS 17.4, Apple required all web browsers on iOS or iPadOS to use Apple's WebKit rendering engine. Alternatives like Gecko (used by Mozilla Firefox) or Blink (used by Google and other Chromium-based browsers) were not permitted. Whatever brand of browser you thought you were using on your iPhone, under the hood it was basically Safari.

Browser makers have objected to this for years, because it limits competitive differentiation and reduces the incentive for Apple owners to use non-Safari browsers.

Apple's designation under Europe's Digital Markets Act (DMA) as a gatekeeper for the App Store, iOS, Safari, and just recently iPadOS forced Cupertino to make concessions.

One such allowance – realized in iOS 17.4 – was letting iOS (and subsequently iPadOS) apps in the EU use alternative browser engines.

But rivals have complained that Apple's concessions are designed – as Mozilla put it – to make it "as painful as possible for others to provide competitive alternatives to Safari."

That can be seen in Apple's extensive list of requirements to offer a third-party browser engine on iOS in the EU.

Parisa Tabriz, VP of engineering and general manager of Chrome at Google, dismissed Apple's rule changes earlier this year. "Apple isn't serious about supporting web browser or engine choice on iOS," Tabriz wrote in February. "Their strategy is overly restrictive, and won't meaningfully lead to real choice for browser developers."

When Apple announced its plan to make changes in response to DMA in January, developers expressed concern that supporting a separate EU browser might be a problem. And those concerns persist.

"The contract terms are bonkers and almost no vendor I'm aware of will agree to them," lamented one industry veteran familiar with the making of browsers in response to an inquiry from The Register.

"Even folks that may have signed something to be able to prototype can't ship under the constraints Apple's trying to impose. They're so broad and sweeping as to try to duck most of the DMA by contract … which is certainly bold."

In March, the European Commission opened an investigation into Apple based on concerns that Cupertino's "steering" rules and browser choice screen fell short of DMA requirements.

"By blocking browser engineers across the globe from working on their real browsers unless they are physically located in the EU, Apple is preventing them from being able to compete or perhaps even ship on iOS," declared Alex Moore, executive director of Open Web Advocacy, in a note to The Register.

"This is clearly absurd, has no reasonable justification and can only be described as malicious compliance. As a plausible scenario, imagine as a browser vendor you have a security issue but your top expert on that type of vulnerability is in the US. They have to fly to the EU so they can test and fix on a real device?

"At a minimum, Apple should issue guidance that this is a misunderstanding and that browser vendor test devices are exempt."

Asked about Apple's geofencing of devices for development, an Opera spokesperson replied that it hadn't heard about the issue – but that's not surprising given that the organization is headquartered in the EU.

Jon von Tetzchner, CEO of Vivaldi, also admitted he hadn't heard about the requirement. "Our dev team is all based in the EEA – mostly Norway and Iceland – so I presume this would not have applied to us," he explained. "But again, I cannot see how they could have a rule like that.

"I would think that would be seen as another anti-competitive move," he added.

"[Apple's] team is in the US and so are the teams for Microsoft, Google, Mozilla and most of the other larger browser companies."

Google and Mozilla didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. Nor did Apple – which seldom does.

Mozilla and Google have explored versions of Firefox and Chrome for iOS based on non-WebKit engines, but have yet to release anything. Firefox users have requested a Gecko-based version of Firefox for iOS, but are yet to receive any release commitment. ®

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