Google’s web app plans collide with Apple’s iPhone, Safari rules

Apple vs Google on the future of the web

James Martin/CNET

Google and Apple, which already battle over mobile operating systems, are opening a new front in their fight. How that plays out may determine the future of the web.

Google was born on the web, and its business reflects its origin. The company depends on the web for search and advertising revenue. So it isn’t a surprise that Google sees the web as key to the future of software. Front and center are web apps, interactive websites with the same power as conventional apps that run natively on operating systems like Windows, Android, MacOS and iOS. 

Apple has a different vision of the future, one that plays to its strengths. The company revolutionized mobile computing with its iPhone line. Its profits depend on those products and the millions of apps that run on them. Apple, unsurprisingly, appears less excited about developments, like web apps, that could cut into its earnings.

The two camps aren’t simply protecting their businesses. Google and Apple have philosophical differences, too. Google, working to pack its dominant Chrome browser with web programming abilities, sees the web as an open place of shared standards. Apple, whose Safari browser lacks some of those abilities, believes its restraint will keep the web healthy. It wants a web that isn’t plagued by security risks, privacy invasion and annoyances like unwanted notifications and permission pop-ups.

Google leads a collection of heavy-hitting allies, including Microsoft and Intel, trying to craft new technology called progressive web apps, which look and feel like native apps but are powered by the web. PWAs work even when you have no network connection. You can launch PWAs from an icon on your phone home screen or PC start menu, and they can prod you with push notifications and synchronize data in the background for fast startup.

PWA fans include Uber, travel site Trivago and India e-commerce site Flipkart. Starbucks saw its website usage double after it rolled out a PWA.

The split over native apps and web apps is more than just a squabble between tech giants trying to convert our lives online into their profits. How it plays out will shape what kind of a digital world we live in. Choosing native apps steers us to a world where we’re locked into either iOS or Android, limited to software approved by the companies’ app stores and their rules. Web apps, on the other hand, reinforce the web’s strength as a software foundation controlled by no single company. A web app will work anywhere, making it easier to swap out a Windows laptop for an iPad.

“What you’re seeing is the tension between what is good for the user, which is to have a flexible experience, and what’s good for the platform, which is to keep you in the platform as much as possible,” said Mozilla Chief Technology Officer Eric Rescorla.

Google pushes web apps

Google, the champion of web apps, leads a project called Fugu that aims to expand browser abilities. Fugu’s goal: “Web apps should be able to do anything native apps can.”

Google has power to turn its plans into reality. Its Chrome browser accounts for 65% of web usage, according to analytics firm StatCounter. That dominance is cemented by the fact that it’s the default browser on billions of phones running Android, Google’s mobile operating system. Chrome’s open-source foundation, Chromium, spreads Google PWA technology to a host of other browsers, including Microsoft Edge, Samsung Internet and Brave that also use Chromium. And when Google websites employ Google’s preferred web technology — YouTube using VP9, video compression technology or Google Docs using a key PWA storage technology called Service Workers, for example —  that’s a strong incentive for other browsers to follow suit. Safari now offers Service Workers, but the feature arrived later and is missing some abilities.

Over the last five years, Google Chrome has cemented its dominance of browser usage, while only Apple's Safari has held its place, according to measurements of web usage by analytics firm StatCounter.

Over the last five years, Google Chrome has cemented its dominance of browser usage, while only Apple’s Safari has held its place, according to measurements of web usage by analytics firm StatCounter.


But there’s a place Google can’t get its way: Apple’s iPhones and iPads. There, Apple requires browsers to use Safari’s foundation, called WebKit. Chrome for iPhone is more Apple’s browser than Google’s, so a PWA technology Google builds into Chrome for Android, Windows and MacOS won’t necessarily show up in Chrome on an iPhone.

One outspoken Google executive believes Apple’s approach is an existential threat to the web. This month, Fugu technical leader Alex Russell lashed out after Apple developers published a list of 16 web programming abilities Safari won’t support because of Apple’s privacy and security concerns. Apple’s “structural underinvestment in their browser engine” is pushing “a vibrant ecosystem to collapse,” he said.

Higher up the ranks, Google is more diplomatic. Apple’s stance is a “challenge,” acknowledges Ben Goodger, a founding member of Google’s Chrome team who now directs its Web Platform group. He has been encouraged, though, by moves such as Apple’s addition of Service Workers.

“We work closely in concert with Apple to try to pull the platform forward in ways that make sense,” Goodger said.

Meanwhile, Google also continues to add technology to Chrome unilaterally, though it also works with standards groups to encourage broader adoption and to make browsers compatible.

Making money

Google has its own power and profits to push, and keeping people on the web is key. Parent company Alphabet’s online advertising revenue totaled $34 billion last quarter. When people use Chrome, Google doesn’t have to share a portion of resulting search ad revenue with others like Mozilla or Apple.

In contrast, native apps are integral to Apple’s business. The company relies on its huge and varied App Store to keep consumers buying iPhones, a business that generated $29 billion in revenue last quarter. Apple’s cut of app store sales, which can be as much as 30%, is an important revenue stream itself. Last quarter, Apple reported $13 billion in services revenue, which includes app store business.

Apple, though, doesn’t see web apps and native apps as a zero-sum game.

“We don’t look at it as competition between native apps and the web. We want to give people tools they can use in the way they find appropriate. We’re going to continue to advance native apps, the web and Safari,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. The Safari team is growing, Apple said.

But to some, a direct connection between Apple’s business and its web strategy is clear.

“It starts coming down to app store politics and revenue,” said Peter Sheldon, strategy leader at Adobe’s Magento e-commerce division. “If you make web apps as good as [native] apps, where does the app store revenue go?”

Progressive web app fans

PWAs are the latest power boost for the web, following developments like JavaScript and WebAssembly programming that let the web house online versions of Adobe Acrobat and Autodesk’s AutoCAD design and engineering software converted from native counterparts.

Microsoft, a big Fugu player that’s contributing significantly to Chromium, is building its own PWAs and making PWAs fit in better on Windows. The future Windows 10X version could rely more heavily on web apps.

Here’s an example of how PWAs can work. Instead of downloading the Google Maps native app from an app store, you can open with your mobile browser. A basic version of the website will open, but new components will arrive as you need them — thus the term “progressive.” On Android, the PWA could suggest you add an icon to the home screen for ready use later, and maps could be stored for offline use.

PWAs are good for smaller companies that can’t afford to build native mobile apps. They can be easier for people to discover on the web and to open by tapping on a link. PWAs let companies bypass revenue-sharing fees that app stores can require on sales of goods or services like Spotify music subscriptions.

Developers can choose both web and native apps. eBay’s native apps provide “the best possible experience for our customers,” said Senthil Padmanabhan, an eBay vice president. Still, he sees Fugu as “absolutely needed” and is building PWA technologies like push notifications into its website.

PWAs good for quick interactions

Downloading and installing a native app is fine if you expect to use it over and over, but nobody wants that hassle for a one-off transaction. Filling that in-between space is a strength of PWAs.

PWAs are also good for “short term, low commitment experiences,” said Beerud Sheth, chief executive of AI chat company Gupshup. “The app model is broken for those sorts of interactions.”

Uber, Starbucks and Microsoft Bing offer progressive web apps as an alternative to apps running natively on iOS, Android and other operating systems. Note how the Starbucks app shows a prompt to install the PWA on an Android home screen -- something Apple doesn't allow on iPhones.

Uber, Starbucks and Microsoft Bing offer progressive web apps as an alternative to apps running natively on iOS, Android and other operating systems. Note how the Starbucks app shows a prompt to install the PWA on an Android home screen — something Apple doesn’t allow on iPhones.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

A majority of people, from Generation Z to baby boomers, would rather buy from a company’s website than from an app, according to a survey commissioned by online marketing company WP Engine. That’s great news for the PWAs, which can power e-commerce without requiring an app download.

Push notifications are a centerpiece of PWAs. But only native apps can send them on iPhones. Plenty of developers don’t like that — especially because those push notifications can prod you to return to a web app you might otherwise forget about. Developers also want apps that can prompt people to add them to their phone’s home screen, something Chrome can do automatically but that Apple doesn’t.

“Apple’s reticence to ship web platform features on mobile Safari is definitely the biggest thing holding back … mobile web apps,” said Ted Mielczarek, a developer at analytics firm FullStory who previously worked on Mozilla’s Firefox browser.

Just say no

Interactive features have also caused problems like websites nagging us to sign up for newsletters and grant permission to send notifications. Ads clamor for our attention and track us online.

Even Mozilla, whose Firefox browser is designed to counter the might of tech giants, is concerned about giving PWAs too many native app abilities. Doing so “undercuts the basic value proposition of the web, which is that you can go to any web page and it’s safe,” Mozilla’s Rescorla said.

Then there’s security. Web browsers are adept at blocking threats, but new programming interfaces inevitably increase the “attack surface” that hackers target. Each new interface is a place where hackers can try injecting data to take over a phone or PC.

Microsoft is confident the new web app technology will settle down, be safe and help users, though. “There’s a new level of energy that’s being introduced. We’re at the transition phase where there’s tension in the system,” said Microsoft Edge leader Chuck Friedman.

Apple web philosophy

Apple sees a role for Safari to curb the web’s new problems. That’s why Apple has made privacy a priority with Safari’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention, a feature that helped lead other browsers to curtail tracking. Other top goals include speed, security and efficient battery usage.

“We want to advance the web by incorporating web technologies that deliver compelling new user experiences while at the same time safeguarding user privacy and security. As we evaluate new technologies, we always consider possible risks alongside benefits,” the Apple spokesperson said.

Apple helped launch a new hardware-accelerated web graphics interface called WebGPU.

Animation by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Features that developers like aren’t always feature users like. Website requests to allow push notifications grew so annoying that Firefox and Chrome are now working to rein in websites’ permission requests.

Apple objects to several web app features. Background data sync is a big change from users’ expectations that closing a browser tab shuts down that website. Saving a PWA to a phone’s home screen is fine when it’s solely under the user’s control. Access to a PC’s file system increases security risks.

Apple’s role isn’t just shooting down what it sees as bad ideas. “We don’t view the web as a bounded experience that has some fundamental upper limit. We are continuing to push the web forward,” the spokesperson said. One example: WebGPU, a proposed standard to accelerate graphics.

Blocking features that can degrade the web doesn’t necessarily block them altogether, though. Native apps come with plenty of security risks, privacy invasion and annoying notification chatter.

Changes with Safari 14

Apple later this year will release Safari 14, which software chief Craig Federighi called “the biggest update to Safari since it was first introduced.” At Apple’s WWDC developer event in May, he spotlighted features for Safari users, like stronger and clearer privacy protections, faster performance, warnings for compromised passwords and the ability to tap into Chrome’s rich collections of extensions. 

Safari 14 also brings new features for developers. Those include support for Web Authentication options to address today’s password shortcomings, the space-saving WebP image format (a decade after Google introduced it), faster data storage and official, if partial, support for support for an important PWA facet called manifests. iOS 14 will for the first time let iPhone users set browsers besides Safari as default.

Even if Apple doesn’t share Google’s full web app ambitions, the company has added support for some PWA technologies like Service Workers and for other technologies that help everything else on the web, too. That trend likely will continue, whether the pressure comes from developers or Safari users.

“If all of Google and Microsoft becomes a PWA,” it’ll make Safari look like it isn’t up to scratch, said Kenneth Christiansen, a web platform architect at Intel. “Then Apple will catch up.”

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