Safari on the iPad doesn’t cut it. Apple’s mobile browser, we’ve long argued, has plenty to learn from its third-party competitors. And the list of iPad alternatives to Safari is about to get longer, as Mozilla prepares to make the leap from the desktop to iOS. The company recently previewed a demo of Junior, which aims to “reinvent” Web browsing on tablets. Yes. Please do.
“If you look at Safari on the iPad, it’s a pretty miserable experience,” said Alex Limi, a Firefox product designer. In response, Mozilla is designing a tablet browser from the ground up, discarding traditional user interface elements and conventions to craft an experience that’s better tailored to tablets. No tabs. No needless chrome. Just the Web, full-screen and accessible through a user interface that’s about as bare-bones as they come.
Before Junior lands in the App Store, we will likely see an iPad browser from Google, which is rumored to be working on Chrome for iOS. This is another positive development. The iPad represents a rapidly growing segment of consumer computing. Users deserve choices when it comes to doing something as fundamental as browsing the Web.
Mozilla’s new project, which is only a prototype at this point, isn’t without challenges. For one, Apple won’t allow non-WebKit browsers into the App Store, so Junior can’t use Firefox’s Gecko rendering engine. That’s probably better for developers, since it’s one less browser into which one needs to wrangle their CSS layouts.
Apple’s Obsession with Control
The biggest obstacle to Mozilla (or other third-party iOS browser makers) achieving meaningful market share is the fact that Apple won’t let users change the default browser on iOS. You can tap open Opera Mini, Dolphin, Skyfire or Junior all the livelong day, but any time you follow a link from an email or another app, guess which browser is going to launch?
This is an area in which even the most ardent Apple defenders have to admit that the company isn’t doing users any favors. Yes, Apple likes to control the user experience, and most of the time that’s a blessing. It’s why my 2-year old niece can pick up my iPad and immediately find her way around the home screen. But this control sometimes works against the interests of users, who also want some degree of control. Whenever that tension arises – and no strong argument exists that Apple can save users from a nightmare experience – it’s time for Cupertino to lighten up and let users craft their own experience a bit.
Take email, for example. Apple’s default Mail app for iOS is plain in its design and sports only the most basic, essential features. By comparison, Sparrow has a well-designed UI with fluid, subtle animations that make it a delight to use. For my money, Sparrow offers a far better way to read and manage my Gmail account than Mail. So when I jailbroke my iPhone, one of the first things I did was make Sparrow my default mail app. The user experience of reading my email on my iPhone didn’t suddenly spring a leak and hemmorage its inherent usefulness everywhere. The system works perfectly, and I get to use my email client of choice. My experience has improved to an extent that Apple’s rules don’t allow.
Why Apple Should Let Users Change the Default Browser in iOS
Swapping out the default iOS Web browser would have the same effect. The way pages render would be identical, thanks to the WebKit requirement. But the UI and the way people interact with the Web could be improved. The user experience would be degraded only to the extent that Apple allows hideous, unusably buggy third-party apps into the App Store – which is to say, practically never.
Apple would remain very much in control even if it allowed users to change their default browser. It would still have the App Store guidelines and approval process, as well as the requirement that browser developers use WebKit. It could reject any third-party browsers that didn’t meet its rigid standards. It would be ceding only a modicum of control to users, who might or might not choose to use it.
Perhaps that day is coming. After all, it wasn’t long ago that third-party browsers were forbidden on iOS all together, as were other apps that mimicked native iOS functionality. Apple has relaxed its restrictions in some of these areas as the ecosystem continues to evolve and grow. Maybe it will relax a little further.