Mozilla and Google are developing non-WebKit iOS browsers

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Apple is reportedly preparing to open the App Store to non-WebKit iOS browsers and Mozilla and Google are wasting no time in preparing their alternatives.

App Store rules currently forbid any third-party browser from using an engine other than Apple’s own WebKit. Regulators are gearing up to force Apple to change the rule because it’s seen as anti-competitive.

When they arrive later this year, iOS 17 and iPadOS 17 are expected to be small releases when it comes to user-facing features – due to Apple focusing development efforts on its AR/VR headset – but they will come with important under-the-hood changes.

The system-level changes are expected to lift some of Apple’s infamous restrictions before Cupertino’s hand is forced by regulators. The changes should give developers creating software for Apple’s mobile devices similar freedoms to what they would enjoy on Mac.

In anticipation of a change to Apple’s browser rules, Mozilla and Google are building iOS browsers that use their own respective engines instead of WebKit.

Starting with Mozilla, code on GitHub for the iOS version of Firefox contains references to the Gecko layout engine. Posts from Mozilla software developers talk of a “proper Gecko Firefox on iOS”.

Mozilla once bemoaned Microsoft’s decision to ditch its EdgeHTML browser engine in favour of Chromium. That decision, Mozilla argued, reduced competition in the market and handed too much power to Google. The ability to bring alternative engines to iOS’ large user base is sure to be welcomed.

Over in the Googleverse, the company is also preparing a non-WebKit browser. Code commits suggest the project is still experimental and Google will “continue to abide by Apple’s policies.”

Another major change to iOS 17 and iPadOS 17 is expected to be the ability to sideload apps and third-party app stores—something that Apple has always strongly opposed.

In November 2022, the EU introduced the Digital Markets Act. The act requires “gatekeeper” companies to open their platforms to other companies and developers. Apple has until 6 March 2024 to comply with the act.

The ability to sideload apps would enable cloud gaming services to finally offer native apps on iOS instead of relying on browser workarounds.

Earlier this month, a filing by Apple from 20 January 2023 was published that featured its formal response to the UK competition regulator’s Statement of Issues over Apple’s refusal to make it easy for cloud gaming services to run on iOS.

In the response, Apple remained firm in its claim that games “pose real and novel risks from a security/privacy perspective” and the remedies proposed by the regulator “risk disproportionately impacting Apple’s ecosystem.”

Apple also wrote in its response that a “proper investigation” would find that existing browser features “do not show an adverse effect on competition.”

Those comments don’t suggest that Apple is willing to open up its mobile ecosystem, but numerous reports suggest that’s exactly what is going to happen. Apple’s WWDC should be particularly interesting this year.

(Photo by Przemyslaw Marczynski on Unsplash)

Related: CAF report highlights developers’ plight from anti-competitive practices

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