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Browser wars veteran accuses Apple of 'sabotaging the web'

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An engineer who has spent the last decade working across web browser projects at Google and Microsoft has ridiculed the characterization of Apple as a champion of choice.

In a new blog post (opens in new tab), Alex Russell argues that in reality the opposite is true; he claims Apple has deliberately wielded its influence in the hardware and mobile OS markets to “undermine browser engine diversity”.

“Contrary to claims of Apple partisans, iOS engine restrictions are not preventing a ‘takeover’ by Chromium - at least that’s not the primary effect,” he wrote. “Apple uses its power over browsers to strip-mine and sabotage the web, hurting all engine projects and draining the web of future potential.”

The case against Apple

According to Russell, Apple stands in the way of diversity in the web browser market in a variety of ways, each of which he unpacks in turn.

The main criticism is that the company continues to force developers to reskin its inferior WebKit engine if they want to put out a browser on iOS, a platform used by more than a billion people worldwide.

Although Russell nods to the quality of the developers working on WebKit, he claims Apple has significantly underfunded the browser engine, which is maintained by a “skeleton staff” and is therefore incapable of competing with the likes of Blink (based on Chromium).

The result, he says, is that third-party developers incur significant additional costs associated with building their apps for multiple engines and the iOS browser market is simultaneously starved of innovation. Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, is cited as having delayed its entry to iOS by “around seven years” as a result of Apple’s stringent requirements.

“Today, Apple doesn’t compete outside its home turf, and when it has agency, it prevents others from doing so. These are not the actions of a firm that is consciously attempting to promote engine diversity. If Apple is an ally in that cause, it is only by accident,” said Russell.

“Theories that postulate a takeover by Chromium dismiss Apple’s power over a situation it created and recommits to annually through its budgeting process.”

Russell also took aim at the reluctance with which Apple introduced the ability to change the default browser in iOS. Only once antitrust regulators began sniffing around did Apple take these steps in 2020.

In some cases, iOS would still override the new default when links were opened from within certain apps, which Russell says created a split browser experience that had a negative impact on users, developers, and publishers alike.

“The pantomime of browser choice on iOS has created an anaemic, amnesiac web. Tapping links is more slogging than surfing when autofill fails, passwords are lost, and login state is forgotten. Browsers become less valuable as the web stops being a reliable way to complete tasks.”

“By simultaneously taking a massive pot of cash for browser-building off the table, returning the least it can to engine development, and preventing others from filling the gap, Apple has foundationally imperilled the web ecosystem by destroying the utility of a diverse population of browsers and engines.”

TechRadar Pro has asked Apple for a response to Russel’s arguments.

Joel Khalili
Joel Khalili

Joel Khalili is the News and Features Editor at TechRadar Pro, covering cybersecurity, data privacy, cloud, AI, blockchain, internet infrastructure, 5G, data storage and computing. He's responsible for curating our news content, as well as commissioning and producing features on the technologies that are transforming the way the world does business.