UPDATE: According to some traffic over on Twitter, it looks like this whole thing is vaporware. It has been uncovered that the bug in question in the article below has nothing to do with Safari at all. The bug is still private and cannot be viewed by non-Google employees, but it appears that this bug is assigned to “Move sync tests to staging” from 2015. We’re sorry for the incorrect reporting and have left the original story below. Additionally, here is a tweet from someone more informed than me on the subject:
This is completely fake. No such plan. The supposed email address isn’t anyone on the Safari/WebKit teams, there is no ITP code in Chromium that could be enabled, and the screenshot is not a real Safari design.— othermaciej (@othermaciej) December 27, 2019
A day after Christmas, a reader delivered a tasty little present to our collective inbox and the implications are pretty big. If the screenshots in this email/article are to be believed, it looks like Apple may be transitioning the Safari web browser over to Chromium in a move similar to what Microsoft has done recently with Edge. It is shocking, honestly, to consider Apple bending this way, but it makes a lot of sense in the long run.
A Bit of Background
Before we can make any sense of this, we have to get the whole picture. Apple has famously been very closed in its software efforts over the years. From iOS to MacOS, they have never really felt the need to associate themselves with open source material in general. Apple builds the hardware, maintains the OS and software, and if you want to sell your apps on their platforms, you just have to suck it up and play ball.
This all works fine when you sell iPhones like hotcakes. When you so heavily dominate a given market (the US) with your hardware, you get to make whatever rules you want and developers and consumers alike get whatever it is you feed them. But this doesn’t work with the web. The web is the ultimate open platform and delivery tool. Thank God we’ve not all caved on that expectation. Somehow in the midst of this open-minded nature, no one has ever been OK with being forced to use one browser over another. People don’t care what browser their computer of choice ships with: they want to use the browser they enjoy using that just works.
For the vast majority of users, Chrome became that browser right in the middle of companies like Apple and Microsoft choosing to lag behind on rapidly-changing web standards. Whether it was due to stubbornness or incompetency, Safari, Internet Explorer, and Edge were constantly lacking in multiple facets when compared with Chrome. As those browsers stayed consistently behind the curve, Chrome only grew in popularity to where it is in its dominant place now. At any point, Apple or Microsoft could have simply decided that 3rd party browsers were not allowed, but there’s just something about the web that wouldn’t allow that to happen. There’s no way users would have it.
An Open Source Approach
One of the primary benefits of Chrome is the fact that it is based on the Chromium browser. This is the open source foundation of Chrome the way you know it. Chromium and Chromium OS are both developed out in the open and are contributed to by anyone interested in their success. Chrome (Google’s version of the Chromium browser) has a handful of proprietary bits and pieces that are Google’s and those things make it unique to other browsers that run on Chromium, but because it is built on an open source base, Chrome gets to take full advantage of not just a single team of developers, but an entire horde.
Other browsers have seen the vast opportunity and done the same. Browsers like Brave, Opera, Vivaldi, Edge, Samsung’s Internet Browser, and a slew of others all run on this same Chromium foundation. What this means is the teams charged with developing each of these expressions of Chromium care about what Chromium can do and what it can’t and are all working towards a more functional, better-performing web browser core. Sure, they all serve their own interests along the way, but the work they do for their platform is there for others to leverage as well.
This is the power of open source software. Instead of a ton of companies competing to build differing standards and ways of doing things, they all spend that same time working on a common project that will be so much better as a result. Microsoft’s work on Chromium for Edge has already began yielding better RAM management and battery life. These are things important to Microsoft in their browser, so it will become something that is also important for Chromium. In this system, consumers win every time.
Apple May Be On Board
Now, we get to this new report. As you may assume, Safari is both behind the curve and closed source, so a move to a Chromium-based browser would be both beneficial to Apple and users alike. Apple gets to deliver Safari without all the technical deficiencies it comes with and users get to just use Safari out of the box without having to decide which browser to go with when they buy their new Mac. If Safari is already installed and just as good from a technical standpoint as Chrome, why bother installing something else?
If this report from iphones.ru is to be believed, there’s a good chance Safari may end up built on Chromium sooner rather than later. In the article, a bug report (that has since been hidden) was found that is requesting “Intelligent Tracking Prevention” to be activated in Chrome 80. This is a big deal since ITP is a proprietary to Safari at this point and the request is coming from an Apple employee. Why would an Apple developer be requesting a proprietary Safari feature be activated in Chrome 80? Well, you know that answer to that, don’t you?
In addition to this evidence, there are a couple screen grabs from the bug report. The first one clearly shows this request coming from a developer with an @apple.com address along with an included screenshot, and upon quick inspection, the screenshot is of Safari running on Chromium in an alpha state.
A couple more notes, here. First, the bug has since been marked as private. If this was a fake, searching the bug number would come up with an error. Instead, it comes up as blocked and needing permission to view. There’s no real reason for anyone to hide this if it wasn’t legit. They could have simply replied in the bug thread and told this guy to stop messing around. Instead, they hid the references, and this tells me that something was uncovered that shouldn’t have been.
Second, the alpha version of the Chromium-based Safari being pictured is just that: alpha. It looks pretty rough and that is honestly to be expected. Ripping out the guts of your browser makes you only focus on the function at first. Apple is likely doing a ton of work under the hood to make sure all the functional parts are lining up and working before they even consider making the outside look nice, so don’t read too much into the overall hideous appearance in that screenshot.
Finally, it is worth noting that in the first screenshot, you can see the list of operating systems this is being added to: Windows, Linux, and Mac. This could mean that we’ll see a Chromium-based Safari on all three major desktop operating systems and could signal yet another softening of the walled garden approach Apple has long been known for. They’re relatively recent inclusion of PWAs on iPhone is further evidence that Apple may finally be seeing the light with broader, open source, web-based software, and that’s good news for everyone.