Apple geofences operate third-party browser engines for devices in the EU

Exclusive Apple’s reluctant adjustment to European law – allowing third-party browser engines on its mobile devices – apparently introduces a limitation that makes it difficult to develop and support third-party browser engines for the region.

The register has learned from those involved in the browser business that Apple has limited the development and testing of third-party browser engines to devices physically located in the EU. This requirement creates an additional barrier for anyone in the EU planning to develop and support a browser with an alternative engine.

It ensures effective geofence of the development team. Browser makers whose development teams are based in the US can only work on simulators. While some testing can be performed in a simulator, there is no substitute for testing on a device – meaning developers will have to work within Apple’s prescribed geographic boundaries.

Before iOS 17.4, Apple required all web browsers on iOS or iPadOS to use Apple’s WebKit rendering engine. Alternatives such as Gecko (used by Mozilla Firefox) or Blink (used by Google and other Chromium-based browsers) were not allowed. Whatever brand of browser you thought you were using on your iPhone, under the hood it was actually Safari.

Browser makers have objected to this for years, because it limits competitive differentiation and reduces the incentive for Apple owners to use non-Safari browsers.

Apple’s designation under the European Digital Markets Act (DMA) as gatekeeper for the App Store, iOS, Safari and recently iPadOS forced Cupertino to make concessions.

One of those capabilities – realized in iOS 17.4 – was allowing iOS apps (and later iPadOS) in the EU to use alternative browser engines.

But rivals have complained that Apple’s concessions are intended — as Mozilla put it — to make it “as painful as possible for others to offer competing alternatives to Safari.”

This can be seen in Apple’s extensive list of requirements to offer a third-party browser engine on iOS in the EU.

Parisa Tabriz, VP of engineering and general manager of Chrome at Google, dismissed Apple’s rule changes earlier this year. “Apple is not serious about supporting web browser or engine choice on iOS,” Tabriz wrote in February. “Their strategy is too restrictive and will not meaningfully provide real choices for browser developers.”

When Apple announced its plan to make changes in response to DMA in January, developers expressed concerns that supporting a separate EU browser could be a problem. And those concerns persist.

“The contract terms are crazy and almost no vendor I know will agree to them,” complained an industry veteran familiar with making browsers in response to a question from The register.

“Even people who may have signed something to be able to prototype cannot deliver under the restrictions that Apple is trying to impose. They are so broad and far-reaching that they are trying to contractually bypass most of the DMA. .which is certainly daring.”

In March, the European Commission opened an investigation into Apple over concerns that Cupertino’s driving rules and browser selection screen did not meet DMA requirements.

“By preventing browser engineers around the world from working on their real browsers unless they are physically in the EU, Apple is preventing them from competing or perhaps even shipping on iOS,” said Alex Moore, executive director of Open Web Advocacy . , in a note to The register.

“This is patently absurd, has no reasonable justification and can only be described as malicious compliance. As a plausible scenario: imagine that you, as a browser vendor, have a security problem, but your top expert on those types of vulnerabilities is in the US. to fly to the EU so they can test and fix it on a real device?

“Apple should at least indicate that this is a misunderstanding and that test devices from browser vendors are exempt.”

Asked about Apple’s geofencing of development devices, an Opera spokesperson said he had never heard of the issue – but that’s not surprising considering the organization is headquartered in the EU.

Vivaldi CEO Jon von Tetzchner also admitted he had never heard of the requirement. “Our development team are all based in the EEA – mainly Norway and Iceland – so I assume this wouldn’t have applied to us,” he explained. “But then again, I don’t understand how they can have a rule like that.

“I would think this would be seen as another anti-competitive move,” he added.

“[Apple’s] team is in the US and so are the teams at Microsoft, Google, Mozilla and most other major browser companies.”

Google and Mozilla did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither does Apple – which is rarely the case.

Mozilla and Google have explored versions of Firefox and Chrome for iOS based on non-WebKit engines, but have not yet released anything. Firefox users have requested a Gecko-based version of Firefox for iOS, but have not yet received a release commitment. ®

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