Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

A Week to Define the Web for Decades

If you live or do business in the UK or the US, what you do in the next seven days could define the web for decades to come. By filing public comments with UK regulators and US legislators this week, you can change the course of mobile computing more than at any other time in the past decade. Read on for why this moment matters and how to seize the day.

By way of background, regulators in much of the anglophone world (and beyond) spent much of 2021 investigating the state of the mobile ecosystem.

This is important because Apple has succeeded in neutering the web's potential through brazenly anti-competitive practices and obfuscation. Facebook and Google, meanwhile, have undermined user agency in browser choice for fun and profit.

I kid.

It was all for profit:

Public statements from leading authorities who have looked into this behaviour leave a distinct impression of being unimpressed. Here's the unflappably measured UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) weighing in last month:

Apple and Google have developed a vice-like grip over how we use mobile phones and we're concerned that it's causing millions of people across the UK to lose out.

The CMA's 400+ page interim report (plus an additional ~200 pages of detailed appendices) didn't make the waves it deserved when it was released near the winter holidays.[1] That's a shame as the report is by turns scathing and detailed, particularly in its proposed remedies, all of which would have a profoundly positive impact on you, me, and anyone else who uses the mobile web:

The report sets out a range of actions that could be taken to address these issues, including:

  • Making it easier for users to switch between iOS and Android phones when they want to replace their device without losing functionality or data.
  • Making it easier to install apps through methods other than the App Store or Play Store, including so-called "web apps".
  • Enabling all apps to give users a choice of how they pay in-app for things like game credits or subscriptions, rather than being tied to Apple's and Google's payment systems.
  • Making it easier for users to choose alternatives to Apple and Google for services like browsers, in particular by making sure they can easily set which browser they have as default.

This is shockingly blunt language from a regulatory body:

Our market study has provisionally found that:

❌ People aren’t seeing the full benefit of innovative new products and services such as cloud #gaming and web #apps.


Our provisional findings also suggest:

💷 customers could be facing higher prices than they would in a more competitive market.


The report demonstrates that the CMA understands the anti-competitive browser and browser-engine landscape too. Its findings are no less direct than the summary:

Impact of the WebKit restriction

As a result of the WebKit restriction, there is no competition in browser engines on iOS and Apple effectively dictates the features that browsers on iOS can offer[.]

The CMA has outlined its next steps and is requesting comment until February 7th, 2022.

Apple, in particular, has demonstrated that it is a bad actor with regards to competition law. This post could easily contain nothing but a rundown of fruity skulduggery; that's how brazen Cupertino's anti-competitive practices have become. Suffice to say, Apple sees being fined 5M EUR per week over entirely reasonable requests a "cost of doing business." Big respect-for-the-rule-of-law vibes.

But this sort of thing isn't going to last. Regulators don't like being taken for a ride.

...Meanwhile in Washington

On this side of the pond, things are getting serious. In just the past two weeks:

We're even getting gauzy coverage of pro-regulatory senators. It's quite the moment, and indicates dawning awareness of these blatantly anti-competitive practices.

This Is About More Than Browsers

It's tempting to think of browser choice and app store regulation as wholly separate concerns, but neither the web nor apps exist in a vacuum. As the desktop web becomes ever-more powerful on every OS, even the most sophisticated app developers gain more choice in how they reach users.

Unleashing true choice and competition in mobile browsers won't only help web developers and users, it will level the playing field more broadly. Native app developers that feel trapped in abusive policy regimes will suddenly have real alternatives. This, in turn, will put pricing pressure on app store owners that extract egregious rents today.

Web apps and PWAs compete with app stores for distribution, lowering the price to develop and deliver competitive experiences. This allows a larger pool of developers and businesses to "play".

App store "review" and its capricious policy interpretations have always been tragicomic, but true competition is needed to drive the point home. Businesses are forced into the app store, requiring they spend huge amounts to re-build features multiple times. Users risk unsafe native app platforms when the much-safer web could easily handle many day-to-day tasks. We're only stuck in this morass because it helps Google and Apple build proprietary moats that raise switching costs and allow them to extort rents from indie developers and hapless users.

A better future for mobile computing is possible when the web is unshackled, and that will only happen when competition has teeth.

What You Can Do

This is the last week to lodge comment by email with the UK's CMA regarding the findings of its interim report. Anyone who does business in the UK and cares about mobile browser choice should send comments, both as an individual and through corporate counsel.

For US residents, the speed at which legislation on this front is moving through Congress suggests that this is the moment for a well-timed email or, more preferably, call to your elected senator.

If you live or do business in the US or the UK, this week matters.

Whichever geography you submit comment to, please note that regulators and legislators have specific remits and will care more or less depending on the salience of your input to their particular goals. To maximize your impact, consider including the following points in your comments:

Leaving your contact information for follow-up and verification never hurts either.

It's been 761 weeks since Apple began the destruction of mobile browser choice, knowingly coating its preference for a "native" device experience (in web-friendly garb) at the expense of the mobile web. This is the week you can do something about it.

Carpe diem.

  1. While the tech press may have been asleep at the wheel, Bruce Lawson covered the report's release. Read his post for a better sense of the content without needing to wade through 600+ pages. ↩︎