You Won’t Be Able to Use Just Any App as a Default Browser in iOS 14 (And That’s a Good Thing)

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There are a whole lot of exciting new features coming to iOS 14 this fall, but for many users one of the most significant is also something that’s relatively minor on the surface: the ability to set alternative default browser and mail apps.

In fact, many have wondered what’s taken Apple so long to add this seemingly basic feature, and we really can’t disagree that it seems odd that after more than a decade, users are still forced to use Safari and Mail, particularly when opening web and mail links.

Although Apple did provide some alternative capabilities in the form of the new Share Sheets introduced back in iOS 7, allowing any third-party app to plug in as an alternative, this required third-party apps to support the share sheets for opening links, and even when they did, users were required to jump through extra hoops to get there — it wasn’t as simple as just tapping on a URL or email address.

So regardless of how long we think it should have taken, it’s welcome news that when iOS 14 launches later this year, it will finally be possible to set third-party web browsers and mail apps as defaults for these types of links. In fact, the code to support this is already present in the iOS 14 public betas, but browser and mail apps themselves will need to be updated to take advantage of it — iOS 14 won’t make any assumptions about what a “browser” or “mail” app is, and naturally there will be some specific ways that these apps need to hook into the operating system.

In fact, it turns out that it’s not going to be a complete free-for-all for third-party developers — not surprisingly Apple has a list of requirements that apps will have to meet before they can “qualify” to be considered a valid default browser or default mail app.

Apple’s Requirements

In all fairness, Apple does want to make sure that apps that offer to be default browsers are, well, actually web browsers, as you can probably imagine the chaos that would ensue if just about any app were allowed to offer itself up as your default browser — and no, folks, the Google Search app is not a web browser, and it’s actually this sort of thing that Apple’s guidelines will help to make clear.

Because this app becomes the user’s primary gateway to the internet, Apple requires that web browsing apps meet specific functional criteria to protect user privacy and ensure proper access to internet resources.

Apple’s requirements aren’t actually all that onerous, and it’s clear that it just wants to make sure that anything that can take over as a default browser meets certain minimum standards for how a browser should operate on the iPhone and iPad, and these are all things that we can appreciate.

For example, a default browser must offer a text field for entering a URL directly, as well as search tools for finding content on the internet, or at least a “curated list of bookmarks.”

Further, when it’s opened from a link as the default browser, it needs to navigate directly to the destination and show the expected web content, and only the expected web content. It’s not allowed to go anywhere else first, or “render content not specified in the destination’s source code.”

In other words, Apple wants to make sure that developers can’t cook up spyware and adware style apps as default browsers, although it does make exceptions for browsers that are designed to offer parental controls, as well as allowing for “Safe Browsing” or other warnings related to unsafe content. Browsers will also be permitted to offer their own native login screens for sites that offer “a native web sign-in flow.”

Apple also wants to make sure that default browser apps don’t have access to more data than necessary, and has wrapped a bunch of restrictions around how a default browser app will be able to access things like photos and location data.

Because of their privileged position in a user’s web browsing, browser apps should avoid unnecessary access to personal data.

For example, default browsers will not be allowed to use “always-on” location access — they’ll naturally be required to request location authorization on a site-by-site basis, just like Safari is, to avoid the risk of users granted carte blanche location access to every website they happen to visit.

Similarly, default browsers can’t be granted full read access to a user’s photo library, and must again ask for authorization on a case-by-case basis. Access to the HomeKit and Health databases is also expressly forbidden to apps that want to be default browsers.

To ensure that it maintains some control over which apps can get default browser status, Apple is actually locking down this feature under a special “entitlement,” which basically requires developers to get a specific authorization from Apple in order to use this feature; developers who are interested in creating default browser apps will need to e-mail Apple to request permission to use this entitlement before they will be able to turn on the default browser capabilities in their apps.

By contrast, although Apple will be vetting default mail apps in a similar manner, the lower risk presented by mail apps means that the requirements are much more straightforward, and primarily focused on obvious aspects of the user experience — a default mail app has to “be able to send a message to any valid email recipient” and “receive a message from any email sender,” although of course inbound mail screening features are allowed as long as they can be controlled by the user.

What This Means for You

We’re quite sure that the major players like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox are already preparing for iOS 14, which means that we shouldn’t have to wait too long before you’ll be able to set Chrome or Firefox as a default browser — although unless you’re also on the Chrome or Firefox beta lists don’t expect these apps to arrive before iOS 14 gets released later this year.

There’s every indication that real browsers like these already fulfill Apple’s requirements, and while some folks are suggesting that Apple will misuse this approval process, we don’t think there’s anything to worry about. From the guidelines that Apple has offered so far, it clearly just wants to make sure that anything that gets set as a default browser actually acts like a browser, and that’s a good thing — especially considering how easy it is to imagine the kind of apps we might see showing up as “default browsers” on the App Store if Apple didn’t have this set of restrictions in place.

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