Apple accused of harming browser engine diversity

Alex Russell, a longtime web browser engineer who contributed to browser projects at Google and Microsoft, where he currently works, has accused Apple of hindering browser innovation.

Russell claims in a blog post that Apple has deliberately used its influence in the hardware and mobile operating systems market to stifle completion and innovation for browser engines.

“Apple has undermined the diversity of browser engines. Contrary to what Apple supporters claim, iOS engine limitations don’t prevent a ‘takeover’ by Chromium — at least that’s not the primary effect,” he wrote.

“Apple is using its power over browsers to strip and sabotage the Web, harming all engine projects and stripping the Web of future potential.”

Apple requires the use of its own WebKit rendering engine, the basis of its Safari mobile browser, by competing mobile browsers delivered through the iOS App Store. As a result, chromeRand, and Firefox on iOS are similar to Safari.

Competitors like Microsoft, Mozilla and Google have long complained about this requirement. Their mobile browsers relied on WebKit rather than their own competing engines, making it impossible for them to compete on iOS through product differentiation.

Web developers are also frustrated with Apple’s restriction that their web applications can only use the web application programming interfaces (APIs) built into the WebKit browser engine.

Many believe that this barrier drives developers to create native iOS apps, which are operated by Apple.

According to Russell, Apple has been preventing rival browsers from introducing their own engines for 14 years and forcing vendors to develop skins over Apple’s WebKit binary, which traditionally had no feature parity, was slower, and also less secure.

While acknowledging the caliber of WebKit engineers, he claims that Apple has drastically underfunded the browser engine, which is maintained by a “skeleton staff” and thus incapable of competing with Blink and other similar browser engines (based on on Chrome).

He claims that as a result, third-party developers have to spend much more money to build their multi-engine applications, and that the iOS browser industry suffers from a lack of innovation.

“Browsers are both large companies and industrial-scale engineering projects. It takes hundreds of people to implement and maintain a competitive browser with specializations in almost every computer field. World-class experts in graphics, networking, cryptography, databases, language design, VM deployment, security, usability (especially useful security), power management, compilers, fonts, high-performance layout, codecs, real-time media, audio and video pipelines, and specialization by operating system are required,” he wrote.

Russell also criticized Apple for being slow to allow users to change the default iOS browser. Apple took little action until antitrust regulators began prowling the area.

According to Russell, “a better and brighter” future for the web is achievable, thanks to the increasing activity of regulators.

“Studies are now underway worldwide, so if you think Apple shouldn’t be afraid of a little competition if it’s going to help the web thrive, consider getting involved,” he wrote.

“The future isn’t written yet, and we can change it for the better.”

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