iOS 14 To Better Support Third-Party Apps Like Web Browsers


The technology giant is discussing whether to let users choose third-party web browser and mail applications as their default options on Apple’s mobile devices, replacing the company’s Safari browser and Mail app, according to people familiar with the matter. Since launching the App Store in 2008, Apple hasn’t allowed users to replace pre-installed apps such as these with third-party services. That has made it difficult for some developers to compete, and has raised concerns from lawmakers probing potential antitrust violations in the technology industry.

I’m sure a default app system has always been somewhere on the nigh-infinite to-do list of things Apple wants to add to iOS at some point. After all, it’s a natural feature for any mature operating system to offer. No doubt, the brewing threat of big tech antitrust regulation helped bump it up the roadmap, such that is now on the cards for iOS 14.

The simplest version of “default apps” would be a way to override what app is launched when a web link is tapped. Implementation-wise, it’s pretty straightforward. iOS apps already declare what URL schemes that they can support, but as it stands today third-party developers can only enact on custom schemes. For iOS 14, Apple would simply change the system policy so that http and mailto links delegate to whatever app the user has chosen in Settings, rather than always being forwarded to Safari and Mail.

That small change would cover the use cases of what most people think up when they say they want the ability to set default apps. With such a trivial amount of work involved, that is probably what Apple will do. Competition regulators would probably be appeased by it. However, if you were actually trying to design a system that treated third-party and first-party apps as equals, there’s a lot further to go.

Apple’s stock apps have a lot of privileged system behaviours. For instance, Mail gets to poll the server for new emails on a regular schedule. You can go into Settings and set to check for new mail as often as once every every fifteen minutes. Third-party email apps can only use the sanctioned background refresh APIs, which throttle updates significantly and do not have any guarantees of regularity. This means the majority of third-party email apps have to be backed by a cloud service that checks inboxes and sends new mail push notifications to the device. Apple Mail also has deep and granular options for notification preferences; a user can choose how and where notifications appear on a per-mailbox basis, and do things like let messages from VIP contacts hit the lock screen whilst sending everything else silently to Notification Centre. No App Store app has the capability to do that stuff.

Regarding competing with Safari, you have the classic constraint of no arbitrary code execution, which means all iOS third-party browsers can only ever be thin wrappers around WebKit anyway. There’s also no getting away from the fact that Safari View Controller is a special built-in component, widely used by a lot of apps, which offers access to system AutoFill, Keychain and a shared cookie database. Safari’s prominence on iPhone and iPad isn’t going anywhere.

I use Safari and Mail out of personal preference, not because I am forced to, but if I was invested in Chrome or Outlook or whatever, I would be wanting more than just URL scheme handling. Bloomberg’s report focuses mostly on how Apple will support email and browser alternatives, when those categories of apps are really not where the anticompetitive complaints are coming from.

The predominant frontrunner is the dispute with Spotify, currently making its way through the European commission. Bloomberg does say that iOS 14 may offer a way to select Spotify as their preferred app for Siri music commands, allowing users to command Siri to play music without having to say ‘on Spotify’ every single time. Moreover, apparently the HomePod will gain the ability to support native apps other than Apple’s, which would pave the way for Spotify on the HomePod itself, rather than through AirPlay.

Being locked out of the HomePod was one of the things Spotify complained about to the EU, so you can definitely draw a line there to an instance where Apple is conceding. Realistically, though, a few more iOS 14 features in its favour will not shut Spotify up. Spotify’s complaint boils down to money; the App Store requirement to use In-App Purchase and the 30% cut. I’ll just say Apple is surely more willing to open up iOS than it is to make concessions to the business of the App Store. I don’t think we will see App Store policy change much unless some government institution forces the issue.