June 19, 2024
A closer look at Apple's browser-related changes to iOS in EU


Well, it turns out it’s not a bug that broke iPhone web apps, also known as Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), in the EU. Following developer complaints and press reports about how PWAs were no longer functional in the EU after installing the most recent iOS betas, Apple has updated its website to explain why. No surprise, the tech giant is blaming the new EU regulation, the Digital Markets Act, for the change, saying that the complexities involved with the DMA’s requirement to allow different browser engines is the root cause.

To catch you up, security researcher Tommy Mysk and Open Web Advocacy, first noticed that PWAs had been demoted to website shortcuts with the release of the second beta of iOS 17.4. Initially, it was unclear if this was a beta bug — stranger things have happened — or it was intended to undermine the functionality of PWAs in the E.U., a market where Apple is now being forced to allow alternative app stores, third-party payments, and alternative browser engines, among other things. In the betas, PWAs, which typically allow web apps to function and feel more like native iOS apps, were no longer working. Developers noticed that these web apps would open like a bookmark saved to your Home Screen, instead.

As MacRumors pointed out at the time, that meant no “dedicated windowing, notifications, or long-term local storage.” iOS 16.4 also allowed PWAs to badge their icons with notifications, as native apps could. iOS 17.4 beta users reported that when they opened a web app while running the iOS beta, the system would ask them if they wanted to open the app in Safari or cancel. The message indicates that the web app will “open in your default browser from now on,” it said. Afterward, users said they experienced issues with data loss, as a Safari website shortcut doesn’t offer local storage. Notifications also no longer worked.

Still, there was reason to be cautious about whether or not the change was intentional. Multiple staff at TechCrunch repeatedly asked Apple for comment but received no reply. (We had wanted to know if the comapny would confirm if this was a beta bug or an intentional change, and if the latter, what Apple’s reasoning for it was.) After the next beta release emerged, The Verge ran a report indicating that Apple “appears to be” breaking PWAs in the E.U., after also not likely getting a formal response from the tech giant.

Now, Apple has responded, in its way. Today, it updated its website detailing its DMA-related changes in the EU to address the matter. In a new update, the company explains how it’s had to make so many changes to iOS to comply with the EU guidelines, that continued support for PWAs was simply off the table.

Traditionally, the iOS system provided support for Home Screen web apps by building directly on WebKit (Safari’s browser engine), and its security architecture, Apple said. That allowed web apps to align with the same security and privacy models as found in other native apps. But with the DMA, Apple is being forced to allow alternative browser engines. It argues that without the isolation and enforcement of the rules applied to WebKit-based web apps, malicious apps could be installed that could do things like read data from other web apps, or “gain access to a user’s camera, microphone or location without a user’s consent,” Apple said.

“Addressing the complex security and privacy concerns associated with web apps using alternative browser engines would require building an entirely new integration architecture that does not currently exist in iOS and was not practical to undertake given the other demands of the DMA and the very low user adoption of Home Screen web apps. And so, to comply with the DMA’s requirements, we had to remove the Home Screen web apps feature in the EU,” the website reads.

The company informs EU users they will be able to access websites from their Home Screen through bookmarks as a result of the change, confirming developers’ concerns that PWAs were effectively being disabled in the EU.

“We expect this change to affect a small number of users. Still, we regret any impact this change — that was made as part of the work to comply with the DMA — may have on developers of Home Screen web apps and our users,” Apple says.

Critics have argued that Apple’s desire to hold onto its power in the iOS app ecosystem was so strong that it would break web app functionality for users of its devices. Apple’s defenders, meanwhile, will probably argue that the company’s explanation is reasonable and aligns with Apple’s desire to keep iOS safe for its users. The truth, as it often is, is likely lies more in the middle.

Apple still has not responded to requests for comment.





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