Apple, Google, Microsoft and others have essentially locked users into their web browsers through default settings in their OS platforms, giving the platform makers an unfair advantage over competitors, according to a new report by Firefox maker Mozilla.
Mozilla researchers found each platform maker “wants to keep people within its walled garden” by steering mobile and desktop users to Apple Safari, Google Chrome, or Microsoft Edge. “All five major platforms today (Google, Apple, Meta, Amazon, Microsoft) bundle their respective browsers with their operating systems and set them as the operating system default in the prime home screen or dock position,” Mozilla wrote in a 66-page report.
Mozilla claims that while many people report knowing how to install a browser in theory, “lots of people never actually install an alternative browser in practice.”
Browser users also fear that changing will cause them to lose years of data such as passwords, bookmarks, and history, and because OS developers don’t help make porting that data easier, further switching is hindered. “This magnifies the power of the operating system, which can choose either to stifle competition (by doing nothing or even inhibiting switching) or to help consumers (by making porting data easier),” Mozilla argued.
Forcing users into a preselected browser also stifles innovation, Mozilla said. “The lack of browser diversity leaves people exposed when it comes to improved security and privacy. Browsers are powered by a ‘browser engine,’ which significantly impacts the capability of a browser,” Mozilla said.
Apple, Mozilla noted, requires all developers deploying iOS browsers to use Apple’s own Safari WebKit engine. When security issues arise on WebKit, all iOS browser users are equally vulnerable until Apple finds, fixes, and publishes patches. “This is just one reason why a range of browsers, using different browser engines, is desirable,” Mozilla said.
No doubt, Firefox feels left behind. In 2009, Firefox use peaked at 32%, overtaking Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE 7) at the time. Along with a long list of add-ons available to it, Firefox was praised for its speed and security measures compared to IE. Soon after Google Chrome’s multiplatform launch in 2010, however, Firefox began losing ground.
Jack Gold, principal analyst at research firm J. Gold Associates, said previous versions of Microsoft browsers, such as early Internet Explorer, offered a bad user experience, were slow, and often didn’t display all web pages correctly unless they were formally supported by IE. That pushed a lot of users switch to Chrome, Firefox, and others.
“But those days are pretty much over, as most users would not complain about the browsing experience they get today from installed browsers,” Gold said via email. “I really don’t see a compelling marketplace for third-party browsers for the vast majority of users. That’s the real challenge faced by Firefox, et al. And the leaders (Apple, Google, MSFT) will always point to the supposed advantages over the competition.”
Today, the fact that Apple, Google, Mozilla, and Samsung are the only major browser engine makers left should be an obvious clue to the fact that users simply don’t have other innate choices, Mozilla said.
Google weighs in
A Google spokesman fired back at Mozilla’s report, saying regardless of the platform, people choose Chrome because it’s fast, secure, and offers the best experience.
“We also make it easy for people to switch default browsers and have meaningful browser options, unlike Microsoft, which puts up barriers to switching to different browsers, or Apple, which requires browsers to use the WebKit engine, ultimately limiting user choice,” the spokesman said in an email reply to Computerworld.
“And we’ve made the underlying code for Chrome available to all for free; in fact, it’s now used to power competing browsers including Microsoft Edge, Brave, Samsung Internet, and Arc,” the spokesman continued. “Most Android devices come with more than one browser, and browsers can use the browser engine of their choice.”
Microsoft declined to comment; Apple did not respond to a request to comment.
Google pointed out that about 66% of Windows and 26% of Mac users choose Chrome as their browser, even though it doesn’t come pre-installed on these operating systems.
The company also criticized Windows 10 and 11 for making it more challenging for users to switch or utilize default browsers outside of Edge, a claim that has been reported on before. Windows, it said, also uses app URLs that require users to open links from mail or apps into Edge, even where a user has set a different browser default.
Worldwide today, Chrome holds a commanding lead over all other browsers in the mobile and desktop marketplace, according to Statista. In mobile, Chrome holds 62% market share. Apple’s Safari comes in second with 26%. Firefox claims less than a half percent market share.
On desktops, Firefox fares a little better, with 7.7% of market share. But Chrome claims a solid lead there, too, with 67% market share. Edge is second with 11%, followed by Safari with 8.5%, according to Statista.
UK competition agency sees ‘duopoly’
In June, the UK’s Competition and Market Authority (CMA) said Google and Apple have an “effective duopoly” on mobile ecosystems that give them a stranglehold on operating systems, app stores, and web browsers on mobile devices.
The CMA said 97% of all mobile web browsing in the UK in 2021 happened on browsers powered by either Apple’s or Google’s browser engine. “Apple bans alternatives to its own browser engine on its mobile devices; a restriction that is unique to Apple,” the CMA said.
Mobile devices also typically have either Google’s Chrome or Apple’s Safari pre-installed and set as default at purchase, giving them a key advantage over rival rivals, according to the report. “Apple and Google both have strong positions in mobile web browsing, with a combined share of supply of around 90% for their browsers,” the CMA report said.
Citing research from the European Commission in its report, Mozilla said specific OS design tactics by platform makers essentially remove a consumer’s ability to choose any other browser. For example, in mid-2022, Windows 11 presented users installing the OS with a message highlighted in blue that read: “Use Microsoft Recommended Browser Settings.” The pre-selected option is accompanied by a checkmark, while the alternative “Don’t update your browser settings” is accompanied by a confusing icon, Mozilla said.
The use of the words “settings” and “update” imply that the user may be harmed if they select this option because, for example, they may not be running the most recent version, Mozilla claimed.
“We believe that if people had a meaningful opportunity to try alternative browsers, they would find many to be compelling substitutes to the default bundled with their operating system,” Mozilla’s report said. “Platforms can and should do better for consumers and developers.”
Google cites its open standards
Google noted that its investment in an open-source browser engine and in open web standards has made the web more interoperable and better for developers. Its open standards, it said, have also benefited developers who can build new browsers that differentiate on consumer features without being concerned websites won’t work properly on different devices or in different browsers.
As for Apple and WebKit, Google sided with Mozilla, saying Apple’s claims that developers use WebKit for its security have been disproven by the CMA. And Webkit has been proven to be slower to fix bugs than the other major browser engines, according to Google.
The bottom line, Gold said, is that browsers that ship as the default on systems have an advantage in the marketplace, especially in that many users don’t care to, or even know how to, switch.
“Is that a monopolistic practice? Many think so, and Microsoft and Apple have been fined, as Google is now also being fined as well, especially in the EU,” Gold said. “And while Google may say their browser is fastest, for most users they probably wouldn’t notice that much difference. It’s a little like saying the Apple M1 [chip] is faster than Intel Core chips — it only matters at the extremes of computing.”