Browser Wars on iOS? Seems Unlikely

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Harry McCracken /

A crude, unimaginative simulation of what Chrome might look like on the iPad

I’d love to see Google’s Chrome browser arrive for iOS devices. I’d be even more thrilled if an all-out browser war broke out on Apple’s mobile operating system, with multiple players going all-out to win the hearts and minds of users. So I was intrigued by reports that analyst Ben Schachter of Macquarie is saying that Google is working on Chrome for iOS — and that it might even be undergoing Apple’s approval process right now. Schachter says it could set off Browser Wars Part Deux— a battle reminiscent of the legendary 1990s competition between Internet Explorer and Netscape.

I am, however, more skeptical than giddy over Schachter’s report. For one thing, none of the numerous stories I’ve read about his declaration that Chrome is on its way to iOS bother to mention why he believes this to be the case. More than any other humans on the planet, analysts have a tendency to conflate their own hopes and expectations with reality, so I’m curious about his evidence. (I contacted him to ask, but haven’t heard back.)

While Schachter says that Chrome might be undergoing approval this very minute, he also says that he’s not positive Google intends to release it in 2012 at all. I take that as a hint that his knowledge of this product, even in a best-case scenario, is sketchy.

And even if Chrome for iOS does show up in the App Store, it’s unlikely to be, well, Chrome for iOS. Apple doesn’t let other developers create full-blown browsers for its operating system; instead, it lets them build ones that sit atop the Webkit rendering engine that it uses in Safari. That’s why Mozilla won’t do a version of Firefox for iOS; it wants the ability to build its own engine and thinks that a Firefox based on Apple’s Webkit would be a pointless kludge.

Google might be less of a fussy purist than Mozilla is — and all versions of Chrome use Google’s variant of Webkit anyhow, making the notion of one based on Apple Webkit less than a radical departure. However, Apple doesn’t let iOS users choose a browser other than Safari as the default, another limitation that tends to reduce Safari alternatives to second-class citizens.

It’s a bit as if Microsoft had only permitted Netscape to release a browser that was a repackaged variant of Internet Explorer and which couldn’t be set as the default. How long do you think the original browser wars would have raged on?

Despite all this, the notion of Google creating a version of Chrome for Apple mobile devices seems entirely plausible. Even a Chrome that was actually a gussied-up version of Safari, and which couldn’t be set as the default browser, could be useful, especially if it synced with Chrome in its desktop form. As Schachter mentions, it could also help Google’s bottom line by letting the company hold onto more of the money it makes from search ads on iOS devices.

If Chrome for iOS does arrive, I’ll be first in line to download it. But unless Apple greatly loosens the limitations it places on third-party browsers — a move it seems unlikely to make, unless the Feds intervene — I don’t see any Safari alternative having the opportunity to be a truly important product. There are already a bevy of of ’em, including the Chrome knockoff Diigo. Many of them are quite good — I’m especially fond of Atomic Web Browser. They’re all small fry, though. And Chrome for iOS, I suspect, would be medium-sized fry at best.