Health Benefits of Browser Diversity
There are increasingly loud rumblings that Apple will be allowing other browser engines to be used on iOS, and all I can say is it’s about time.
It’s not always obvious to folks, but the versions of Chrome or Firefox or any other browser you can download on iOS today still uses WebKit, Safari’s underlying engine, under the hood. So you’re not actually getting browser choice at all. It’s more than a little surprising they’ve been able to make that a requirement as long as they have.
Opening it up so that you can use actual Firefox or actual Chrome or actual Edge? That’s a huge win for browser diversity and the web at large.
I’ve seen a few arguments that this potentially only further cements Chrome’s position as the dominant browser engine, but I think that’s only true if Apple decides to let it happen.
Apple’s got some supremely talented folks working on Safari and WebKit—talent has never been the problem. The problem is prioritization and resources. Safari/WebKit are understaffed in comparison to Chrome/Edge/Chromium, and, at least in my experience, historically not as incentivized as Firefox to move forward as quickly with feedback from the community. There have already been big improvements this past year on that front, and there’s plenty of room for more.
The latest release of Safari is an incredibly encouraging sign that this momentum will continue. Not only are there a lot of very valuable (hello home screen web apps!), but the sheer size of the release is staggering compared to what we’ve seen in the past.
Here, for example, are the official release notes for the 16.4 beta alongside the release notes for 16.3 (which is a typical length for Safari’s release notes):
I’m not saying that the comprehensiveness here is entirely prompted by the fact that things might be about to get a lot more competitive, but the timing sure is highly coincidental if it’s not.
Apple makes plenty of money. If they want to start investing more heavily into their browser, they absolutely can. If they want to put a higher focus on making Safari awesome, getting the word out about it, and focusing on making it as ergonomic for developer tooling integrations as Chrome has, they can do that.
Heck, if they wanted to make it possible for folks to run Safari on other operating systems, they could do that too. It would be non-trivial—Safari does tend to rely heavily on the underlying MacOS functionality—but there’s no reason why they couldn’t get there.
So yeah, if they continue to operate with a business as usual approach, with decisions that made sense when they didn’t have to compete for attention on iOS, then sure—other browsers being able to be run on iOS probably does strengthen Chrome’s market share (though let’s not forget how powerful defaults are).
But if they sense the rules of engagement have changed and decide to adjust their strategy as a result? Then this is an unequivocal win for the web and you could even envision a scenario where they start to creep into Chrome’s market share a bit
I mean…could you imagine if they could get to even 60-70% of the engineers working on WebKit as Chrome and Edge have working on Chromium?
Could you imagine if they made it as easy to programmatically drive WebKit as it is to drive Chromium with Puppeteer and the like?
A pivot in strategy from Apple could open up so many doors to a healthier web.