Apple Agrees to Stop Crippling Third Party Browsers, Firefox to Finally Hit the iPhone

Apple, Inc. (AAPL) initially disallowed certain kinds of apps on the iPhone which it viewed as competitors to the iPhone and iPad’s built in apps and services.  One particularly frustrating prohibition to early iPhone adopters was the ban on third party browsers.

In 2009 Apple relented somewhat agreeing to allow third party browsers — but only if they used Apple’s own WebKit browser framework.  A year later Apple went a step further, approving Norwegian browsermaker Opera Software ASA’s (STO:OPERAO) Opera Mini, a browser based on a none-WebKit custom rendering chain (Opera later switched to WebKit).

Opera Mini has been available on the iPhone for three years now.  Firefox is a little late to the party, but it had its reasons for staying away.
Noticeably absent from the new third party browser crowd, though, was the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox browser.  Of course this didn’t seem entirely unthinkable; after all, Mozilla made a rival smartphone platform Firefox OS.

Still some Mozilla employees had spoken out about the need for Firefox on iOS and even tested builds of Firefox on jailbroken iPads.  This led to a bit of mystery and frustration surrounding Mozilla’s no-show on the world’s second most used mobile platform.

Mozilla’s decision to forgo iOS finally ended this week, with Mozilla publicly announcing its intention to launch an iPhone/iPad version of Firefox.  Mozilla engineer Lukas Blakk tweeted the news, writing:

The key to Mozilla’s decision to wait until now appears to have been based on performance concerns.

Until this year Apple had refused to grant third party browsers access to just-in-time (JIT) compilation for javascripts.  As a result third party browsers were condemned to feel more sluggish browsing than the native Safari Mobile browser, due to the slow script processing behind the scenes.  Some browser makers like Opera managed to live with this shortcoming by using clever tricks like server side compression, but these strategies had their downsides as well.

Firefox wasn’t interested in playing those kinds of games, though.  Its perspective was simple — it would not release Firefox on iOS until Apple uncrippled iOS by giving third party browsers access to the same performance tools as Safari Mobile (or at least means to build similar optimizations for a third party browser).

Well, with the launch of iOS 8 Apple finally came around to Mozilla’s logic, offering up the WKWebView API.  WebKit engineer Anders Carlsson explained this new API at the Worldwide Developer Convention (WWDC) in June, stating:
One of the goals we had with this modern API [application programming interface] was to take a lot of features that were previously only available to Safari and give you access to them. For example…the full power of the JavaScript Nitro engine.

It’s unclear how long Mozilla will take to have Firefox ready for iOS.  But now that it has ready access to the tools necessary to make a speedy competitor to Safari, it appears to be ready to get down to business.  With the help of Apple’s warmer welcome, perhaps this time around it won’t get cold feet.

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