Why It Matters That Google Is Developing a Browser Not Based on Webkit

It could be good for you, but not for your phone’s battery

  • Apple may soon lift its Webkits requirements for alternate browser renderers.
  • Google is working on an iOS version of Chrome that uses its Blink rendering engine. 
  • This could bring extra features but reduce privacy and maybe battery life. 
A MacBook laptop with lines of code on the screen sitting in front of an iMac computer.

Christopher Gower / Unsplash

Apple may soon allow other browser engines to run on iOS, and Google is ready to jump in.

Apple already allows browsers like Chrome on the iPhone and iPad, but it's not really Chrome. The company forces third-party browsers to use the built-in WebKit rendering engine, the same one used by Safari. Effectively, they are just Safari with a fancy wrapper. In the face of continued pressure from various regulatory bodies around the world, Apple may reverse this rule, and the effects could be profound–both good and bad

"Native rendering engines on iOS [offer] improved performance: They can take advantage of low-level system APIs to optimize the performance of the app, making it faster and smoother,"  Joel Felsinger, lead developer at Spigot's Wave Browser, told Lifewire via email. "They can provide more sophisticated accessibility features that are optimized for specific platforms and hardware."

What Is a Rendering Engine?

Let’s consider a very simple website. It is written in a computer language called HTML, which is just instructions written in plain text. You can see this 'source' text if you want—just find the right menu option in your browser to show it.

Every browser has a 'rendering engine.' This is the part that takes the text and acts on the instructions. It then grabs any other bits referenced in that text (images, videos, etc.) and lays them out into a nice web page. On the desktop, different browsers use different rendering engines, with different strengths. And of course, modern web pages are full of all kinds of other kinds of code, and are way more complex than our example—but the principle is the same. 

Removing these restrictions will increase competition.

These differences are what make your bank’s website run fine in Chrome, but look screwy in Safari. Or what allows musical instruments running in the Chrome browser to connect to a hardware midi keyboard on your desk, which is impossible with Safari.

Apple's Webkit Obsession

Apple doesn't let App Store apps use third-party rendering engines, as mentioned. Instead, they have to use the built-in Webkit engine, which is a limited version of the one used in Safari. So, while Chrome and Bing can offer extra features and sync your bookmarks etc., they cannot use their own native plugins, for example.

There are good reasons for not allowing third-party engines. Apple's obsession with control is one. Another is security. If a browser can execute arbitrary code outside of Apple's control, it can be a security risk. 

It can also affect battery life. Safari is highly optimized to use very little energy. If you use a laptop Mac with both Safari and Chrome, you'll know that Chrome will burn the battery way faster, and if you're on an old Intel-based Mac, it will also get much hotter. That's the kind of thing Apple wants to avoid on iOS.

However, it may be giving up some of this control, and Google is ready to take advantage.

Two people looking at a MacBook screen with one pointing to some element on a web page.

John Schnobrich / Unsplash

"Removing these restrictions will increase competition. Browsers will be able to compete with each other based on functionality, security, and performance, which can lead to improved product quality," senior software engineer Marat Minulin told Lifewire via email. "That's why I believe this will have a positive impact on users and the industry as a whole."

Google's Blink Rendering Engine

Google’s Chromium team has started working on an iOS version of the Chrome browser that uses its own Blink engine instead of Apple’s webkit, as it does now. No announcement has been made, and no plans revealed. A Google spokesperson told the UK’s The Register that it is just an experimental prototype and appears to still be in its earliest stages. Anyone can see the work, as it is part of an Open Source project.

But come on. If Apple does drop its ban on third-party rendering engines, then Google will want to be there as soon as possible. This is good for Google, of course, because it will have more control. But it will also be good for users. Existing Chrome, Edge, and Firefox users would be able to use their favorite browser, more or less in its entirety, on their mobile computer too.

And those of us who value our privacy, battery life and also use Safari on the Mac, then we can continue as before. Even better, the extra competition will force Apple to up its mobile browser game. And for some people, it might mean you can use that corporate intraweb site on your iPhone and not need your computer.

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