Yesterday, Google launched its redesigned search app for the iPad. It features a smart, innovative design and could, with just a few extra features like bookmarks, easily become the best browser alternative to Safari on iOS. The reality, though, is that while Apple allows browser apps like the Dolphin Browser that use iOS’s built-in WebKit framework or Opera, which renders all the content on its own servers to get around Apple’s rules, none of these can be used as the default browsers on iOS. Whenever you click on a link in an email, for example, you can’t set iOS to open Opera instead of Safari. Because of this, there is almost no incentive for users to even try a third-party browser on iOS, as the system will constantly route them to Safari anyway.
Apple’s Own Browser: Adequate but not Innovative
Apple’s own browser is perfectly adequate, but as the Google app shows, users are missing out on innovations on all levels, including interface design and faster access to modern web standards on their mobile devices.
Safari on the iPad, for example, uses the same way to handle tabs as on the desktop instead of using a design that really makes use of the iPad’s touch features.
Third-Party Browsers Can’t Compete Unless Users Can Make them the Default Choice
The Google search app shows that interesting, touch-centric browser interfaces are possible. For Google, of course, search is the central metaphor for browsing the web, but you could just replace the current search screen at the center of the app with bookmarks and links to web apps and have a great browser app.
Mozilla was late to the mobile browser game, but now it’s doing a few creative things with Firefox on Android (and lets you use plugins, for example). Opera, too, is constantly pushing the envelope with its mobile browsers. iOS users, however, are more or less cut off from all of this innovation. Sure, you can install interesting apps like Dual Browser or Atomic Browser, but chances are, you will never use them because unlike Android, you can’t switch the default browser away from Safari on iOS.
Will Apple Ever Relinquish Total Control over the OS?
Apple, of course, wants to keep total control over your iOS experience. For most apps that are alternatives to built-in iOS apps (email, streaming music, to-do lists etc.), it doesn’t really matter that other apps can’t be set as the default. For browsers, though, it’s really the only way they will ever get widespread use.
Locking the browser down made sense for Apple in the early days of iOS, when apps weren’t even on the roadmap yet. Now, however, this policy feels more like it stifles innovation than that it protects users.