With the iOS 17.4 update, Apple is making significant changes to the way its mobile operating system works in order to comply with European Union (EU) laws. The most notable of these changes will be allowing alternative browser engines for EU users for the first time.
Although many internet browsers have been offered on the App Store so far, they all run on only one browser engine, WebKit. WebKit is the underlying technology of Safari, and it’s not the only engine on the market. For example, Google’s Chrome is powered by a different engine called Chromium. Chromium has a large share in the market, and Edge, Brave, Arc, Opera and many other browsers also run on Chromium. Mozilla’s Firefox runs on its own engine, Gecko.
On iOS, these browsers were forced to use WebKit, which led to many features and plug-ins not working. However, this situation changes with iOS 17.4. Now any browser developer or in-app browser developer will be able to use a non-WebKit engine if they want. With this change, developers who meet certain criteria set by Apple and adhere to ongoing privacy and security measures will be able to access features such as Passkeys and multitasking. Apple is also adding a new selection screen so you can choose a different default browser when you first open Safari.
This change is being made because Apple has to comply with the EU’s new Digital Markets Act (DMA) requirements. Among other things, the DMA stipulates that users will be able to uninstall pre-installed applications, including web browsers, and that they will not be redirected to “gatekeeper” products and services. In this case, iOS plays the role of gatekeeper, and WebKit and Safari are among Apple’s products and services. The same section of DMA allows Microsoft to disable Bing web search and remove Edge, and will lead to other changes as well.
In its statement announcing these new features, Apple makes it clear that it is not happy with these changes: “This change comes as a result of the requirements of the DMA and will result in EU users being presented with a default browser list without having the opportunity to understand the options available to them.” he comments. “This screen also interrupts EU users’ initial experience when they open Safari and intend to navigate to a web page.”
Apple’s argument for the App Store has always been: “Apple is the only company that can deliver a good, secure, happy user experience on iPhone.” But regulators don’t think so, and Apple is unhappy with the situation.
Still, these changes only apply to iPhone users in the EU. Apple will allow European users to travel without changing their browser engines, but only accounts belonging to people living in the EU will receive these new engines. In other parts of the world, you’ll still get everything from Chrome and WebKit to WebKit. Apple claims that other engines are security and performance risks and that only WebKit is truly optimized and secure for iPhone users, but does not provide any specific basis or evidence for these claims.
However, in the EU, we will start to see these revamped browsers in the App Store with the launch of iOS 17.4 in March. Google has been working on a non-WebKit version of Chrome for at least a year. European users are preparing to face a serious browser war on their iPhones.