Apple & the EU’s browser fight will have one winner. It won’t be you

History doesn’t repeat – but it sometimes rhymes. That’s been the case this week as the EU and Apple traded blows over Safari’s ‘gatekeeper’ status under the Digital Markets Act. Apple wants control. The EU wants a more even playing field for businesses. Consumers want tech that just works. But I fear only one winner will emerge from the changes we now see – and it won’t be one the EU expected.

Of course, those of us who’ve been round the block a few times will remember the last browser skirmish. We lived through the infamous browser wars. It was a hideous time in tech. Doubly so for anyone who had to build websites for a living.

Microsoft was hell-bent on controlling the internet. It welded Internet Explorer to Windows, and frequently ignored or subverted burgeoning web standards. Competitors were crushed. Countless websites were broken. The net (oho!) result: creators had to build separate websites for each browser, and users found many sites only worked if they downloaded Internet Explorer. And somehow magicked their Mac into a Windows PC.

Internet vexplorer

Pick a browser! Any browser! Image: Andy Cheng from Threads.

The EU designed regulation – albeit belatedly – to put an end to such nonsense. And part of that was a browser choice screen. If you had Internet Explorer as your default browser, the screen would appear, inviting you to select an alternative from a randomly chosen selection. Was it effective? It’s hard to say. But probably not.

The number of people using other browsers did grow, and Internet Explorer’s marketshare eventually dwindled. But other factors were at play before and after the EU’s mandate – including various efforts across the web to increase awareness of superior alternatives.

Now, it’s Apple’s turn to feel the EU’s regulatory wrath. Safari is deemed a gatekeeper, albeit only on iPhone. Safari for iPhone users in the EU therefore get a screen that whiffs of the old Microsoft one. And, again, it’s unclear how effective this will be in achieving the EU’s aims to improve things for businesses and consumers.

Why? Because like everything else in tech, browsers perpetually exist in a zone akin to a Facebook relationship status update. In other words, it’s complicated.

A tangled web

It was 2020 until you could do this on iPhone.

The EU has a point regarding Apple. On iPhone, meaningful browser competition has been stymied by Apple mandating its own browser engine as the only option. Browsers like Firefox for iPhone are based on the guts of Safari. And for the longest time, Safari’s dominance was further entrenched because Apple did not allow users to select an alternative. Apple also hasn’t done itself favours with public statements ranging from venomous to petulant, and nearly killing progressive web apps in the EU. 

However, by whatever means the iPhone browser select screen was arrived at, the result is a mess. Safari is buried within a randomised list of sometimes sketchy and confusing options. One is even called ‘Browser’. You can imagine people tapping that, or just something – anything – they recognise, to move on.

Which brings me to one unintentional flip side of this legislation: it might cement Chrome on the last major platform where it’s not dominant. We’d then have a browser landscape that echoed the one from the early 2000s, but with Google riding roughshod over the internet rather than Microsoft.

So I’m torn. There are good arguments for competition, but I’m unsure this change will make for good competition. Despite Safari for iPhone during its history ticking many boxes on the ‘Am I monopolistic?’ list, I like that it’s a brake on Chrome being a de-facto default for accessing the internet. But I’m not torn on one thing: this fight won’t usher in a utopia for consumers nor businesses trying to gain a foothold in a market that until now had severely limited their efforts. 

The only winner here will be Google Chrome.

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