Do Google and Mozilla know something about Apple we don't?

Reports that both developers are building iOS browsers that don't use WebKit may hint at Apple's plans to open up a little — but this could cut both ways.

Apple, Google, Mozilla, regulation, iOS, WWDC

Yet more signals suggest Apple may be preparing to open hitherto closed elements of its ecosystem: both Google and Mozilla are working on iOS web browsers that don’t use WebKit, Apple’s rendering engine.

Mozilla and Google seem to be prepping

Mozilla’s GitHub repository now contains code for Firefox on iOS that uses the company’s own Gecko rendering engine rather than WebKit. And Google’s Chromium team is building an iOS browser that uses its own Blink code for rendering. This is significant, since Apple insists all iOS browsers use its own rendering engine.

Coming hot on the heels of an avalanche of regulatory probes into Apple’s business practices, it suggests:

  • Both companies know Apple is planning to implement this change.
  • They believe regulators will force it to do so.
  • They want to be ready in case Apple does relax its WebKit restriction.

We do know that the requirement that browsers support WebKit is one of the restrictions regulators remain critical of. Numerous regulators are exploring Apple’s business; most recently, both the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the US and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in the UK criticized the approach.

What can Apple afford to change first?

Apple will inevitably be considering the arguments made against its business practices, and it seems plausible it will want to make what changes it can make before being forced to do so.

In part, this will enable the company to prove attempted good faith while resisting changes in practices company executives might consider existential.

A move to support browsers that don’t use WebKit could be an easier pill for the company to swallow than being forced to support third-party app stores, for example.

What isn’t clear is whether that support will extend to application development in a straightforward way, or whether there will be layers of protection around use of non-proprietary rendering engines by app developers on Apple’s platforms. I doubt very much that Apple will choose to leave its core platforms less secure by system-level integration with third-party technologies beyond its control. It makes no sense for it to do so.

Apple may be thinking different

In December, a report claimed Apple has a team exploring changes it could put in place to bring its business more in line with what regulators see as acceptable. Among other things, that report claimed the company was looking at support for browser engines other than WebKit. It also posited support for third-party payment systems and app stores as under consideration.

Note: many of these changes are being insisted on in the EU under the Digital Markets Act.

My suspicion is that we’ll hear more reports on these matters in the prelude to June’s WWDC event, as any changes Apple does — or does not — intend to make will be discussed then,as they will have direct impact on developers.  

It also seems reasonable to anticipate those changes being woven into the next iterations of Apple’s operating systems.

But don’t expect an easy ride

At the same time, two can play at the game of access to other platforms, and we’ve already seen Apple explore the potential of such access (albeit in a small way) with Apple’s TV app.

That app is now available across a horde of platforms, devices, televisions, media players and elsewhere — even via LG’s webOS televisions.

I can’t help but wonder what other Apple applications and services could profitably be made available through an Apple curated user experience on third-party platforms, and to what extent users might switch to an Apple alternative to enjoy a more secure, more private user experience on whatever system they use.

Would a highly secure and private version of Safari be popular on Android, or might Apple Arcade games sell well on Epic’s game store? Would customers on stores belonging to other platforms prefer to use Apple Pay? Logically, when circumstances change, it helps to think different, and services are Apple’s lifeline in a challenging hardware sales environment.

We should watch this space.

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