Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

Home Screen Advantage

Decoding Apple's Ploy To Scuttle Progressive Web Apps

After weeks of confusion and intentional chaos, Apple's plan to kneecap the web has crept into view, menacing a PWApocalypse as the March 6th compliance deadline approaches for the EU's Digital Markets Act (DMA).

The view from Cupertino.
The view from Cupertino.

The DMA requires Apple to open the iPhone to competing app stores, and and its lopsided proposal for "enabling" them is getting most of the press. But Apple knows it has native stores right where it wants them. Cupertino's noxious requirements will take years to litigate. Meanwhile, potential competitors are only that.

But Cupertino can't delay the DMA's other mandate: real browsers, downloaded from Apple's own app store. Since it can't bar them outright, it's trying to raise costs on competitors and lower their potential to disrupt Apple's cozy monopoly. How? By geofencing browser choice and kneecapping web apps, all while gaslighting users about who is breaking their web apps.

The immediate impact of iOS 17.4 in the EU will be broken apps and lost data, affecting schools, governments, startups, gamers, and anyone else with the temerity to look outside the one true app store for even a second. None of this is required by the DMA, as demonstrated by the persistence of both PWAs and important features they enable on Windows and Android, both of which are in the same regulatory boat.

The data loss will be catastrophic for many, as will the removal of foundational features. Here's what the landscape looks like today vs. what Apple is threatening:

PWA Capability Windows Android iOS 17.3 iOS 17.4
App-like UI
Settings Integration
Reliable Storage
Push Notifications
Icon Badging
Share-to PWA
App Shortcuts
Device APIs

Apple's support for powerful web apps wasn't stellar, but this step in the wrong direction will just so happen to render PWAs useless to worldwide businesses looking to reach EU users.

Apple's interpretation of the DMA appears to be that features not available on March 6th don't need to be shared with competitors, and it doesn't want to share web apps. The solution almost writes itself: sabotage PWAs ahead of the deadline and give affected users, businesses, and competitors minimal time to react.

Cupertino's not just trying to vandalise PWAs and critical re-engagement features for Safari; it's working to prevent any browser from ever offering them on iOS. If Apple succeeds in the next two weeks, it will cement a future in which the mobile web will never be permitted to grow beyond marketing pages for native apps.

By hook or by crook, Apple's going to maintain its home screen advantage.

The business goal is obvious: force firms back into the app store Apple taxes and out of the only ecosystem it can't — at least not directly. Apple's justifications range from unfalsifiable smokescreens to blatant lies, but to know it you have to have a background in browser engineering and the DMA's legalese. The rest of this post will provide that context. Apologies in advance for the length.

If you'd like to stop reading here, take with you the knowledge that Cupertino's attempt to scuttle PWAs under cover of chaos is exactly what it appears to be: a shocking attempt to keep the web from ever emerging as a true threat to the App Store and blame regulators for Apple's own malicious choices.

And they just might get away with it if we don't all get involved ASAP.

Chaos Monkey Business

Two weeks ago, Apple sprung its EU Digital Markets Act (DMA) compliance plans on the world as a fait accomplis.

The last-minute unveil and months of radio silence were calculated to give competitors minimal time to react to the complex terms, conditions, and APIs. This tactic tries to set Apple's proposal as a negotiating baseline, forcing competitors to burn time and money arguing down plainly unacceptable terms before they can enter the market.

For native app store hopefuls, this means years of expensive disputes before they can begin to access an already geofenced market. This was all wrapped in a peevish, belligerant presentation, which the good folks over at The Platform Law Blog have covered in depth.

Much of the analysis has focused on the raw deal Apple is offering native app store competitors, missing the forest for the trees: the threat Apple can't delay by years comes from within.

Deep in the sub-basement of Apple's tower of tomfoolery are APIs and policies that purport to enable browser engine choice. If you haven't been working on browsers for 15 years, the terms might seem reasonable, but to these eyes they're anything but. OWA has a lengthy dissection of the tricks Apple's trying to pull.

Apple's message of hope and optimism for a better web.
Apple's message of hope and optimism for a better web.

The proposals are maximally onerous, but you don't have to take my word for it; here's Mozilla:

We are ... extremely disappointed with Apple’s proposed plan to restrict the newly-announced BrowserEngineKit to EU-specific apps. The effect of this would be to force an independent browser like Firefox to build and maintain two separate browser implementations — a burden Apple themselves will not have to bear.

Apple’s proposals fail to give consumers viable choices by making it as painful as possible for others to provide competitive alternatives to Safari.

This is another example of Apple creating barriers to prevent true browser competition on iOS.

Mozilla spokesperson

The obvious strategy is to raise costs and lower the value of porting browsers to iOS. Other browser vendors have cited exactly these concerns when asked about plans to bring their best products to iOS. Apple's play is to engineer an unusable alternative then cite the lack of adoption to other regulators as proof that mandating real engine choice is unwise.

Instead of facilitating worldwide browser choice in good faith, Apple's working to geofence progress; classic "divide and conquer" stuff, justified with serially falsified security excuses. Odious, brazen, and likely in violation of the DMA, but to the extent that it will now turn into a legal dispute, that's a feature (not a bug) from Apple's perspective.

When you're the monopolist, delay is winning.

But Wait! There's More!

All of this would be stock FruitCo doing anti-competitive FruitCo things, but they went further, attempting to silently shiv PWAs and blame regulators for it. And they did it in the dead of the night, silently disabling important features as close to the DMA compliance deadline as possible.

It's challenging, verging on impossible, to read this as anything but extrordinary bad faith, but Apple's tactics require context to understand. The DMA came into force in 2022, putting everyone (including Apple) on notice that their biggest platforms and products would probably be "designated", and after designation, they would have six months to "comply". The first set of designation decisions went out last Sept, obligating Android, Windows, iOS, Chrome, and Safari to comply no later than March 6th, 2024.

Apple tried everything to <a href='https://www.theregister.com/2023/11/02/apple_safari_browser/'>shrink the scope of enforcement</a> and <a href='https://www.theverge.com/2024/1/8/23961923/apple-app-store-appeal-european-union-digital-markets-act-core-platform-service-gatekeeper'>delay compliance,</a> but in the end had the same two-years of notice and six-months warning from designation as everyone else.
Apple tried everything to shrink the scope of enforcement and delay compliance, but in the end had the same two-years of notice and six-months warning from designation as everyone else.

A maximally aggressive legal interpretation might try to exploit ambiguity in what it means to comply and when responsibilities actually attach.

Does compliance mean providing open and fair access starting from when iOS and Safari were designated, or does compliance obligation only attach six months later? The DMA's text is not ironclad here:

10: The gatekeeper shall comply with the obligations laid down in Articles 5, 6 and 7 within 6 months after a core platform service has been listed in the designation decision pursuant to paragraph 9 of this Article.

DMA Article 3, Clause 10

Firms looking to comply maliciously might try to remove troublesome features just before a compliance deadline, then argue they don't need to share them with competitors becuse they weren't available before the deadline set in. Apple looks set to argue, contra everyone else subject to the DMA, that the moment from which features must be made interoperable is the end of the fair-warning period, not the date of designation.

This appears to be Apple's play, and it stinks to high heavens.

What's At Risk?

Apple's change isn't merely cosmetic. In addition to immediate data loss, FruitCo's change will destroy:

Removal of one would be a crisis. Together? Apple's engineering the PWApocalypse.

You can't build credible mobile experiences without these features. A social network without notifications? A notetaking app that randomly loses data? Businesses will get the message worldwide: if you want to be on the homescreen and deliver services that aren't foundationally compromised, the only game in town is Apple's app store.

Apple understands even the most aggressive legal theories about DMA timing wouldn't support kneecapping PWAs after March 6th. Even if you believe (as I do) their obligations attached back in September, there's at least an argument to be tested. Cupertino's white-shoe litigators would be laughed out of court and Apple would get fined ridiculous amounts for non-compliance after trying to deny these features to other browsers after the end of the fair-warning period. To preserve the argument for litigation, it was necessary to do the dirty deed ahead of the last plausible deadline.

Not With A Bang, But With A Beta

The first indication something was amiss was a conspicuous lack of APIs for PWA support in the documentation for obviously long-baking BrowserEngineKit, released on Feb 1st alongside Apple's peevish, deeply misleading note that attempted to whitewash malicious compliance in a thin coat of security theatre.

Two days later, after developers inside the EU got their hands on the iOS 17.4 Beta, word started to leak out that PWAs were broken. Nothing about the change was documented in iOS Beta or Safari release notes. Developers filed plaintive bugs and some directly pinged Apple employees, but Cupertino remained shtum. This created panic and confustion as the window for DMA compliance and the inevitable iOS 17.4 final release closed.

Two more betas followed, but no documentation or acknowledgement of the "bug." Changes to the broken PWA behavior were introduced, but Apple failed to acknowledge the issue or confirm that it was intentional (and therefore likely to persist). After two weeks of growing panic from web developers, Apple finally copped to intentionally crippling the only open, tax-free competitor to the app store.

Apple's Feb 15th statement is a masterclass in deflection and deceit. To understand why requires a deep understanding of browsers internals and how Apple's closed PWA — sorry, "home screen web app" — system for iOS works.

TL;DR? Apple's cover story is horseshit, stem to stern. Cupertino oughta be ashamed and we web developers are excused for glowing with incandescent rage over being used as pawns; first ignored, then gaslit, and finally betrayed.

Lies, Damned Lies, and "Still, we regret..."

I really, really hate to do this, but Brandolini's Law dictates that to refute Apple's bullshit, I'm going to need to go through their gibberish excuses line-by-line to explain and translate. This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.

Q: Why don’t users in the EU have access to Home Screen web apps?

Translation: "Why did you break functionality that has been a foundational part of iOS since 2007, but only in the EU?"

To comply with the Digital Markets Act, Apple has done an enormous amount of engineering work to add new functionality and capabilities for developers and users in the European Union — including more than 600 new APIs and a wide range of developer tools.

Translation: "We're so very tired, you see. All of this litigating to avoid compliance tuckered us right out. Plus, those big meanies at the EU made us do work. It's all very unfair."

It goes without saying, but Apple's burden to add APIs it should have long ago provided for competing native app stores has no bearing whatsoever on its obligation to provide fair access to APIs that browser competitors need. Apple also had the same two years warning as everyone else. It knew this was coming, and special pleading at the 11th hour has big "the dog ate my homework" energy.

The iOS system has traditionally provided support for Home Screen web apps by building directly on WebKit and its security architecture. That integration means Home Screen web apps are managed to align with the security and privacy model for native apps on iOS, including isolation of storage and enforcement of system prompts to access privacy impacting capabilities on a per-site basis.

Finally! A recitation of facts.

Yes, iOS has historically forced a pretty busted model on PWAs, but iOS is not unique in providing system settings integration for PWAs. Indeed, many OSes have created the sort of integration infrastructure that Apple describes. These systems leave the question of how PWAs are actually run (and where their storage lives) to the browser that installs them, and the sky has yet to fall. Apple is trying to gussy up their mere preferences as hard requirements without any reasonable justification.

Here we see the outline of a strawman; Apple is insinuating that it can't provide API surface areas to allow the sorts of integrations that others already have. Why? Because it might involve writing a lot of code.

Bless their hearts.

Without this type of isolation and enforcement, malicious web apps could read data from other web apps and recapture their permissions to gain access to a user’s camera, microphone or location without a user’s consent.

Keeping one website from abusing permissions or improperly accessing data from another website is what browsers do. It's a browser's one job.

Correctly separating principals is the very defintion of a "secure" browser. Every single browser vendor (save Apple) treats subversion of the Same Origin Policy as a showstopping bug to be fixed ASAP. Unbelieveable amounts of engineering go to ensuring browsers overlay stronger sandboxing and more restrictive permissions on top of the universally weaker OS security primitives — iOS very much included.

Browser makers have become masters of origin separation because they run totally untrusted code from all over the internet. Security is paramount because browsers have to be paranoid. They can't just posture about how store reviews will keep users safe; they have to do the work.

Good browsers separate web apps better than bad ones, which makes it particularly rich that Apple of all vendors is directly misleading this way. Apple's decade+ of under-investment in Safari ensured it was much less prepared for Spectre and Meltdown and Solar Winds than alternatives on other OSes. Competing engines had invested hundreds of engineer years into more advanced Site Isolation technology than Apple had, and the iOS browser engine monoculture has put users at risk over and over again as a result.

With that as background, we can start to unpack Apple's garbled claim. What Cupertino is alluding to here is that it does not want to create APIs for syncing permission state that would enable the thin shims every PWA-supporting OS uses to make website "first class" in the OS — including iOS today. Further, it doesn't want to add APIs for attributing storage use, or clearing state, or other common management tasks.

If those APIs existed, Apple would still have a management question, which it's misdirections also allude to. But these aren't a problem in practice either. Every browser that would offer PWA support would happily sign up to security terms that required accurate synchronization of permission state between OS surfaces and web origins, in exactly the same way they'd dutifully treat cross-origin subversion as a fatal bug to be hot-fixed.

Apple's excusemaking is a mirror of Cupertino's years of scaremongering about alternate browser engine security, only to take up my proposal more-or-less wholesale when the rubber hit the road. Nothing about this is monumental to build or challenging to manage; FruitCo's just hoping you don't know better. And why would you? The set of people who understand these details generously number in the low dozens.

Browsers also could install web apps on the system without a user’s awareness and consent.

Apple know this is a lie. They retain full control over the system APIs that are called to add icons to the homescreen, install apps, and much else. They can shim in interstitial UI if they feel like doing so. If iOS left this to Safari and did not include these sorts of precautions, those are choices Apple has made and has been given two years notice to fix.

Cuptertino seems to be saying "bad things might happen if we continued to do a shit job" and one can't help but agree. However, that's no way out of the DMA's obligations.

Addressing the complex security and privacy concerns associated with web apps using alternative browser engines would require building an entirely new integration architecture that does not currently exist in iOS and was not practical to undertake given the other demands of the DMA and the very low user adoption of Home Screen web apps.

[CITATION NEEDED]

Note the lack of data? Obviously this sort of unsubstantiated bluster fails Hitchen's Razor, but that's not the full story.

Apple is counting on the opacity of it's own suppression of the web to keep commenters from understanding the game that's afoot. Through an enervating combination of strategic underinvestment and coerced monoculture, Apple created (and still maintains) a huge gap in discoverability and friction for installing web apps vs. their native competition. Stacking the deck for native has taken many forms:

This campaign of suppression has been widly effective. If users don't know they can install PWAs, it's because Safari never tells them, and until this time last year, neither could any other browser. Developers also struggled to justify building them because Apple's repression extended to neglect of critical features, opening and maininting a substantial capability gap.

If PWAs use on iOS is low, that's a consequence of Apple's own actions. On every other OS where I've seen the data, not only are PWAs a success, they are growing rapidly. Perhaps that's why Apple feels a need to mislead by omission and fail to provide data to back their claim.

And so, to comply with the DMA’s requirements, we had to remove the Home Screen web apps feature in the EU.

Bullshit.

Apple's embedded argument expands to:

Neat, tidy, and comprised entirely of bovine excrement.

EU users will be able to continue accessing websites directly from their Home Screen through a bookmark with minimal impact to their functionality. We expect this change to affect a small number of users. Still, we regret any impact this change — that was made as part of the work to comply with the DMA — may have on developers of Home Screen web apps and our users.

Translation: "Because fuck you, that's why"

The DMA doesn't require Apple to torpedo PWAs.

Windows and Android will continue supporting them just fine. Apple apparently hopes it can convince users to blame regulators for its own choices. Cupertino's counting the element of surprise plus the press's poorly developed understanding of the situation to keep blowback from snowballing into effective oppostion.

The Point

There's no possible way to justify a "Core Technology Fee" tax on an open, interoperable, standardsized platform that competitors would provide secure implementations of for free. What Apple's attempting isn't just some hand-wavey removal of a "low use" feature ([CITATION NEEDED]), it's sabotage of the only credible alternative to its app store monopoly.

A slide from Apple's presentation in Apple v. Epic, attempting to make the claim Epic could have just made a PWA if they didn't like the App Store terms because circa '20 Safari was <em>so</em> capable. <br><br><a href='/2021/04/progress-delayed/'>LOL.</a>
A slide from Apple's presentation in Apple v. Epic, attempting to make the claim Epic could have just made a PWA if they didn't like the App Store terms because circa '20 Safari was so capable.

LOL.

Businesses will get the message: from now on, the only reliable way to get your service under the thumb, or in the notification tray, of the most valuable users in the world is to capitulate to Apple's extortionate App Store taxes.

If the last 15 years are anything to judge by, developers will take longer to understand what's going on, but this is an attempt to pull a "Thoughts on Flash" for the web. Apple's suppression of the web has taken many forms over the past decade, but the common thread has been inaction and anti-competitive scuppering of more capable engines. With one of those pillars crumbling, the knives glint a bit more brightly. This is Apple once and for all trying to relegate web development skills to the dustbin of the desktop.

Not only will Apple render web apps unreliable for Safari users, FruitCo is setting up an argument to prevent competitors from ever delivering features that challenge the app store in future. And it doesn't care who it hurts along the way.

The Mask Is Off

This is exactly what it looks like: a single-fingered salute to the web and web developers. The removal of features that allowed the iPhone to exist at all. The end of Steve Jobs' promise that you'd be able to make great apps out of HTML, CSS, and JS.

For the past few years Apple has gamely sent $1,600/hr lawyers and astroturf lobbyists to argue it didn't need to be regulated. That Apple was really on the developer's side. That even if it overstepped occasionally, it was all in the best interest of users.

Tell that to the millions of EU PWA users about to lose data. Tell that to the public services built on open technology. Tell it to the businesses that will fold, having sweated to deliver compelling experiences using the shite tools Apple provides web developers. Apple's rug pull is anti-user, anti-developer, and anti-competition.

Now we see the whole effort in harsh relief. A web Apple can't sandbag and degrade is one it can't abide. FruitCo's fear and loathing of an open platform it can't tax is palpable. The lies told to cover for avarice are ridiculous — literally, "worthy of ridicule".

It's ok to withhold the benefit of the doubt from Safari and Apple. It's ok to be livid. These lies aren't little or white; they're directly aimed at our future. They're designed to influence the way software will be developed and delivered for decades to come.

If you're as peeved about this as I am, go join OWA in the fight and help them create the sort of pressure in the next 10 days that might actually stop a monopolist with money on their mind.

Thanks to Stuart Langride, Bruce Lawson, and Roderick Gadellaa for their feedback on drafts of this post.

The Performance Inequality Gap, 2024

Frontend is haunted by 2013's Great Branch Mispredict

The global device and network situation continues to evolve, and this series is an effort to provide an an up-to-date understanding for working web developers. So what's changed since last year? And how much HTML, CSS, and (particularly) JavaScript can a new project afford?

The Budget, 2024

In a departure from previous years, two sets of baseline numbers are presented for first-load under five seconds on 75th (P75) percentile devices and networks[1]; one set for JavaScript-heavy content, and another for markup-centric stacks.

This was data was available via last year's update, but was somewhat buried. Going forward, I'll produce both as top-line guidance. The usual caveats apply:

With that stipulated, global baselines matter because many teams have low performance management maturity, and today's popular frameworks – including some that market performance as a feature – fail to ward against catastrophic results.

Until and unless teams have better data about their audience, the global baseline budget should be enforced.

This isn't charity; it's how teams ensure products stay functional, accessible, and reliable in a market awash in bullshit. Limits help teams steer away from complexity and towards tools that generate simpler output that's easier to manage and repair.

JavaScript-Heavy

Since at least 2015, building JavaScript-first websites has been a predictably terrible idea, yet most of the sites I trace on a daily basis remain mired in script.[2] For these sites, we have to factor in the heavy cost of running JavaScript on the client when describing how much content we can afford. HTML, CSS, images, and fonts can all be parsed and run at near wire speeds on low-end hardware, but JavaScript is at least three times more expensive, byte-for-byte.

Most sites, even those that aspire to be "lived in", are generally experienced through short sessions, which means they can't justify much in the way of up-front code. First impressions always matter.

Most sorts of sites have shallow sessions, making up-front script costs hard to justify.
Most sorts of sites have shallow sessions, making up-front script costs hard to justify.

Targeting the slower of our two representative devices, and opening only two connections over a P75 network, we can afford ~1.3MiB of compressed content to get interactive in five seconds. A page fitting this budget can afford:

If we set the target to a much more reasonable three seconds, the budget shrinks to ~730KiB, with no more than 365KiB of compressed JavaScript.

Similarly, if we keep the five second target but open five TLS connections, the budget falls to ~1MiB. Sites trying to load in three seconds but which open five connections can afford only ~460KiB total, leaving only ~230KiB script.

Markup-Heavy

Sites comprised mostly of markup (HTML and CSS) can afford a lot more, although CSS complexity and poorly-loaded fonts can still slow down otherwise quick content. Conservatively, to load in five seconds over, at most, two connections, we should try to keep content under 2.5MiB, including:

To hit a more reasonable three second first-load target with two connections, we should aim for a max 1.4MiB transfer, made up of:

These are generous targets. The blog you're reading loads in ~1.2 seconds over a single connection on the target device and network profile. It consumes 120KiB of critical path resources to become interactive, only 8KiB of which is script.

Calculate Your Own

As in years past, you can use the interactive estimator to understand how connections and devices impact budgets. This the tool has been updated to let you select from JavaScript-heavy and JavaScript-light content composition and defaults to the updated network and device baseline (see below).

<em>Tap to try the interactive version.</em>
Tap to try the interactive version.

It's straightforward to understand the number of critical path network connections and to eyeball the content composition from DevTools or WebPageTest. Armed with that information, it's possible to use this estimator to quickly understand what sort of first-load experience users at the margins can expect. Give it a try!

Situation Report

These recommendations are not context-free, and thoughtful folks may reasonably disagree. Indeed, many critiques are possible. The target (five seconds for first load)[1:1] is arbitrary. The sample population (worldwide internet users) may be inappropriate for some services (although it's usually more generous than what teams should target). The methodology (informed reckons) leaves much to be desired.

For all these reasons, I present the thinking behind the estimates to spark more informed points of departure, and also because it helps to clarify the low-key freakout taking place as INP begins to put a price on JavaScript externalities.

It's clear that developers are out of touch with market ground-truth. Building an understanding of the differences in the experiences of wealthy developers vs. working-class users helps to make the diffuse surface of the privilege bubble perceptible.

Engineering is design under constraint, with the goal to develop useful products that serve users and society. The opposite of engineering is bullshitting; substituting fairy tales for inquiry and evidence. For the frontend to earn its stripes as an engineering discipline, its practitioners need to internalise the envelope of what's possible on most devices.

Mobile

The "i" in iPhone stands for "inequality".

Owing to the chasm of global wealth inequality, premium devices are largely absent in markets with billions of users. India's iOS share has surged to an all-time high of 7% on the back of last-generation and refurbished devices. That's a market of 1.43 billion people where Apple doesn't even crack the top five in terms of shipments.

The Latin American (LATAM) region, home to more than 600 million people and nearly 200 million smartphones, shows a similar market composition:

In <abbr>LATAM</abbr>, iPhones make up less than 6% of total device shipments.
In LATAM, iPhones make up less than 6% of total device shipments.

Everywhere wealth is unequally distributed, the haves read about it in Apple News over 5G while the have-nots struggle to get reliable 4G coverage for their Androids. In country after country (PDF) the embedded inequality of our societies sorts ownership of devices by price. This, in turn, sorts by brand.

This matters because the properties of devices defines what we can deliver. In the U.S., the term "smartphone dependence" has been coined to describe folks without other ways to access the increasing fraction of essential services only available through the internet. Unsurprisingly, those who can't afford other internet-connected devices, or a fixed broadband subscription, are also likely to buy less expensive smartphones:

Missing alt text

As smartphone ownership and use grow, the frontends we deliver remain mediated by the properties of those devices. The inequality between the high-end and low-end is only growing, even in wealthy countries. What we choose to do in response defines what it means to practice UX engineering ethically.

Device Performance

Extending the SoC performance-by-price series with 2023's data, the picture remains ugly:

<em>Tap for a larger version.</em><br>Geekbench 5 single-core scores for 'fastest iPhone', 'fastest Android', 'budget', and 'low-end' segments.
Tap for a larger version.
Geekbench 5 single-core scores for 'fastest iPhone', 'fastest Android', 'budget', and 'low-end' segments.

Not only have fruity phones extended their single-core CPU performance lead over contemporary high-end Androids to a four year advantage, the performance-per-dollar curve remains unfavourable to Android buyers.

At the time of publication, the cheapest iPhone 15 Pro (the only device with the A17 Pro chip) is $999 MSRP, while the S23 (using the Snapdrago 8 gen 2) can be had for $860 from Samsung. This nets out to 2.32 points per dollar for the iPhone, but only 1.6 points per dollar for the S23.

Meanwhile, a $175 (new, unlocked) Samsung A24 scores a more reasonable 3.1 points per dollar on single-core performance, but is more than 4.25× slower than the leading contemporary iPhone.

The delta between the fastest iPhones and moderately price new devices rose from 1,522 points last year to 1,774 today.

Put another way, the performance gap between wealthy users carry and budget shoppers grew more this year (252 points) than the gains from improved chips delivered at the low end (174 points). The inequality gap is growing faster than the bottom-end can improve. This is particularly depressing because single-core performance tends to determine the responsiveness of web app workloads.

A less pronounced version of the same story continues to play out in multi-core performance:

<em>Tap for a larger version.</em><br>Round and round we go: Android ecosystem <abbr>SoC</abbr>s are improving, but the Performance Inequality Gap continues to grow. Even the fastest Androids are two-plus years behind iOS-ecosystem devices.
Tap for a larger version.
Round and round we go: Android ecosystem SoCs are improving, but the Performance Inequality Gap continues to grow. Even the fastest Androids are two-plus years behind iOS-ecosystem devices.

Recent advances in high-end Android multi-core performance have closed the previous three-year gap to 18 months. Meanwhile, budget segment devices have finally started to see improvement (as this series predicted), thanks to hand-me-down architecture and process node improvements. That's where the good news ends.

The multi-core performance gap between i-devices and budget Androids grew considerably, with the score delta rising from 4,318 points last year to 4,936 points in 2023.

Looking forward, we can expect high-end Androids to at least stop falling further behind owing to a new focus on performance by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 8 gen 3 and MediaTek's Dimensity 9300 offerings. This change is long, long overdue and will take years to filter down into positive outcomes for the rest of the ecosystem. Until that happens, the gap in experience for the wealthy versus the rest will not close.

iPhone owners experience a different world than high-end Android buyers, and live galaxies apart from the bulk of the market. No matter how you slice it, the performance inequality gap is growing for CPU-bound workloads like JavaScript-heavy web apps.

Networks

As ever, 2023 re-confirmed an essential product truth: when experiences are slow, users engage less. Doing a good job in an uneven network environment requires thinking about connection availability and engineering for resilience. It's always better to avoid testing the radio gods than spend weeks or months appeasing them after the damage is done.

5G network deployment continues apace, but as with the arrival of 4G, it is happening unevenly and in ways and places that exacerbate (rather than lessen) performance inequality.[3]

Data on mobile network evolution is sketchy,[4] and the largest error bars in this series' analysis continue to reside in this section. Regardless, we can look industry summaries like the GSMA's report on "The Mobile Economy 2023" (PDF) for a directional understanding that we can triangulate with other data points to develop a strong intuition.

For instance, GSMA predicts that 5G will only comprise half of connections by 2030. Meanwhile, McKinsey predicts that high-quality 5G (networks that use 6GHz bands) will only cover a quarter of the world's population by 2030. Regulatory roadblocks are still being cleared.

As we said in 2021, "4G is a miracle, 5G is a mirage."

This doesn't mean that 4G is one thing, or that it's deployed evenly, or even that the available spectrum will remain stable within a single generation of radio technology. For example, India's network environment has continued to evolve since the Reliance Jio revolution that drove 4G into the mainstream and pushed the price of a mobile megabyte down by ~90% on every subcontinental carrier.

Speedtest.net's recent data shows dramatic gains, for example, and analysts credit this to improved infrastructure density, expanded spectrum, and back-haul improvements related to the 5G rollout — 4G users are getting better experiences than they did last year because of 5G's role in reducing contention.

India's speed test medians are moving quickly, but variance is orders-of-magnitude wide, with 5G penetration below 25% in the most populous areas.
India's speed test medians are moving quickly, but variance is orders-of-magnitude wide, with 5G penetration below 25% in the most populous areas.

These gains are easy to miss looking only at headline "4G vs. 5G" coverage. Improvements arrive unevenly, with the "big" story unfolding slowly. These effects reward us for looking at P75+, not just means or medians, and intentionally updating priors on a regular basis.

Events can turn our intuitions on their heads, too. Japan is famously well connected. I've personally experienced rock-solid 4G through entire Tokyo subway journeys, more than 40m underground and with no hiccups. And yet, the network environment has been largely unchanged by the introduction of 5G. Having provisioned more than adequately in the 4G era, new technology isn't having the same impact from pent-up demand. But despite consistent performance, the quality of service for all users is distributed in a much more egalitarian way:

Japan's network environment isn't the fastest, but is much more evenly distributed.
Japan's network environment isn't the fastest, but is much more evenly distributed.

Fleet device composition has big effects, owing to differences in signal-processing compute availability and spectrum compatibility. At a population level, these influences play out slowly as devices age out, but still have impressively positive impacts:

Device impact on network performance is visible in Opensignal's iPhone dataset.
Device impact on network performance is visible in Opensignal's iPhone dataset.

As inequality grows, averages and "generation" tags can become illusory and misleading. Our own experiences are no guide; we've got to keep our hands in the data to understand the texture of the world.

So, with all of that as prelude, what can we say about where the mobile network baseline should be set? In a departure from years prior, I'm going to use a unified network estimate (see below). You'll have to read on for what it is! But it won't be based on the sort of numbers that folks explicitly running speed tests see; those aren't real life.

Market Factors

The market forces this series previewed in 2017 have played out in roughly a straight line: smartphone penetration in emerging markets is approaching saturation, ensuring a growing fraction of purchases are made by upgrade shoppers. Those who upgrade see more value in their phones and save to buy better second and third devices. Combined with the emergence and growth of the "ultra premium" segment, average selling prices (ASPs) have risen.

2022 and 2023 have established an inflection point in the regard, with worldwide average selling prices jumping to more than $430, up from $300-$350 for much of the decade prior. Some price appreciation has been due to transient impacts of the U.S./China trade wars, but most of it appears driven by iOS ASPs which peaked above $1,000 for the first time in 2023. Android ASPs, meanwhile, continued a gradual rise to nearly $300, up from $250 five years ago.

Missing alt text

A weak market for handsets in 2023, plus stable sales for iOS, had an notable impact on prices. IDC expects global average prices to fall back below $400 by 2027 as Android volumes increase from an unusually soft 2023.

Counterpoint data shows declining sales in both 2022 and 2023.
Counterpoint data shows declining sales in both 2022 and 2023.
Shipment growth in late 2023 and beyond is coming from emerging markets like the Middle East and Africa. Samsung's A-series mid-tier is doing particularly well.
Shipment growth in late 2023 and beyond is coming from emerging markets like the Middle East and Africa. Samsung's A-series mid-tier is doing particularly well.

Despite falling sales, distribution of Android versus iOS sales remains largely unchanged:

Android sales reliably constitute 80-85% of worldwide volume.
Android sales reliably constitute 80-85% of worldwide volume.
Even in rich nations like Australia and the <a href='https://www.statista.com/statistics/262179/market-share-held-by-mobile-operating-systems-in-the-united-kingdom/'>the U.K.</a>, iPhones account for less than half of sales. Predictably, they are over-represented in analytics and logs owing to wealth-related factors including superior network access and performance hysteresis.
Even in rich nations like Australia and the the U.K., iPhones account for less than half of sales. Predictably, they are over-represented in analytics and logs owing to wealth-related factors including superior network access and performance hysteresis.

Smartphone replacement rates have remained roughly in line with previous years, although we should expect higher device longevity in future years. Survey reports and market analysts continue to estimate average replacement at 3-4 years, depending on segment. Premium devices last longer, and a higher fraction of devices may be older in wealthy geographies. Combined with discretionary spending pressure and inflationary impacts on household budgets, consumer intent to spend on electronics has taken a hit, which will be felt in device lifetime extension until conditions improve. Increasing demand for refurbished devices also adds to observable device aging.

The data paints a substantially similar picture to previous years: the web is experienced on devices that are slower and older than those carried by affluent developers and corporate directors whose purchasing decisions are not impacted by transitory inflation.

To serve users effectively, we must do extra work to live as our customers do.

Test Device Recommendations

Re-using last year's P75 device calculus, our estimate is based on a device sold new, unlocked for the mid-2020 to mid-2021 global ASP of ~$350-375.

Representative examples from that time period include the Samsung Galaxy A51 and the Pixel 4a. Neither model featured 5G,[5] and we cannot expect 5G to play a significant role in worldwide baselines for at least the next several years.[3:1]

The A51 featured eight slow cores (4x2.3 GHz Cortex-A73 and 4x1.7 GHz Cortex-A53) on a 10nm process:

Geekbench 6 scores for the Galaxy A51 versus today's leading device.
Geekbench 6 scores for the Galaxy A51 versus today's leading device.

The Pixel 4a's slow, eight-core big.LITTLE configuration was fabricated on an 8nm process:

Google spent more on the <abbr>SoC</abbr> for the Pixel 4a and enjoyed a later launch date, boosting performance relative to the A51.
Google spent more on the SoC for the Pixel 4a and enjoyed a later launch date, boosting performance relative to the A51.

Pixels have never sold well, and Google's focus on strong SoC performance per dollar was sadly not replicated across the Android ecosystem, forcing us to use the A51 as our stand-in.

Devices within the envelope of our attention are 15-25% as fast as those carried by programmers and their bosses — even in wealthy markets.

The Galaxy may be slightly faster than last year's recommendation of the Galaxy A50 for testing, but the picture is muddy:

Geekbench 5 shows almost no improvement between the A50 and the A51.
Geekbench 5 shows almost no improvement between the A50 and the A51.
Geekbench 6 shows the same story within the margin of error. The low-end is stagnant, and still <a href='https://www.statista.com/statistics/934471/smartphone-shipments-by-price-category-worldwide/' target='_new'>30% of worldwide volume</a>.
Geekbench 6 shows the same story within the margin of error. The low-end is stagnant, and still 30% of worldwide volume.

If you're building a test lab today, refurbished A51s can be had for ~$150. Even better, the newer Nokia G100 can be had for as little as $100, and it's faithful to the sluggish original in nearly every respect.[6]

If your test bench is based on last year's recommended A50 or Nokia G11, I do not recommend upgrading in 2024. The absolute gains are so slight that the difference will be hard to feel, and bench stability has a value all its own. Looking forward, we can also predict that our bench performance will be stable until 2025.

Claims about how "performant" modern frontend tools are have to be evaluated in this slow, stagnant context.

Desktop

It's a bit easier to understand the Desktop situation because the Edge telemetry I have access to provides statistically significant insight into 85+% of the market.

Device Performance

The TL;DR for desktop performance is that Edge telemetry puts ~45% of devices in a "low-end" bucket, meaning they have <= 4 cores or <= 4GB of RAM.

Device Tier Fleet % Definition
Low-end 45% Either:
<= 4 cores, or
<= 4GB RAM
Medium 48% HDD (not SSD), or
4-16 GB RAM, or
4-8 cores
High 7% SSD +
> 8 cores +
> 16GB RAM

20% of users are on HDDs (not SSDs) and nearly all of those users also have low (and slow) cores.

You might be tempted to dismiss this data because it doesn't include Macs, which are faster than the PC cohort. Recall, however, that the snapshot also excludes ChromeOS.

ChromeOS share has veered wildly in recent years, representing 50%-200% of Mac shipments in a given per quarter. In '21 and '22, ChromeOS shipments regularly doubled Mac sales. Despite post-pandemic mean reversion, according to IDC ChromeOS devices outsold Macs ~5.7M to ~4.7M in 2023 Q2. The trend reversed in Q3, with Macs almost doubling ChromeOS sales, but slow ChromeOS devices aren't going away and, from a population perspective, more than offset Macs today. Analysts also predict growth in the low end of the market as educational institutions begin to refresh their past purchases.

Networks

Desktop-attached networks continue to improve, notably in the U.S. Regulatory intervention and subsidies have done much to spur enhancements in access to U.S. fixed broadband, although disparities in access remain and the gains may not persist.

This suggests that it's time to also bump our baseline for desktop tests beyond the 5Mbps/1Mbps/28ms configuration that WebPageTest.org's "Cable" profile has defaulted to for desktop tests.

How far should we bump it? Publicly available data is unclear, and I've come to find out that Edge's telemetry lacks good network observation statistics (doh!); Windows telemetry doesn't capture a proxy for network quality, I no longer have access to Chrome's data, the population-level telemetry available from CrUX is unhelpful, and telcos li...er...sorry, "market their products in accordance with local laws and advertising standards." All of this makes it difficult to construct an estimate.

One option is to use a population-level assessment of medians from something like the Speedtest.net data and then construct a histogram from median speeds. This is both time-consuming and error-prone, as population-level data varies widely across the world. Emerging markets with high mobile internet use and dense populations can feature poor fixed-line broadband penetration compared with Western markets.

Another option is to mathematically hand-wave using the best evidence we can get. This might allow us to reconstruct probable P75 and P90 values if we know something about the historical distribution of connections. From there, we can gut-check using other spot data. To do this, we need to assume some data set is representative, a fraught decision all its own.[7] Biting the bullet, we could start from the Speedtest.net global survey data, which currently fails to provide anything but medians (P50):

Speedtest.net's global median values are unhelpful on their own, both because they represent users who are testing for speed (and not organic throughput) and because they don't give us a fuller understanding of the distribution.
Speedtest.net's global median values are unhelpful on their own, both because they represent users who are testing for speed (and not organic throughput) and because they don't give us a fuller understanding of the distribution.

After many attempted Stupid Math Tricks with poorly fitting curves (bandwidth seems to be a funky cousin of log-normal), I've decided to wing it and beg for help: instead of trying to be clever, I'm leaning on Cloudflare Radar's P25/P50/P75 distributions for populous, openly-connected countries with >= ~50M internet users. It's cheeky, but a weighted average of the P75 of download speeds (3/4ths of all connections are faster) should get us in the ballpark. We can then use the usual 5:1 downlink:uplink ratio to come up with an uplink estimate. We can also derive a weighted average for the P75 RTT from Cloudflare's data. Because Cloudflare doesn't distinguish mobile from desktop connections, this may be an overly conservative estimate, but it's still be more permissive than what we had been pegged to in years past:

National P75 Downlink and RTT
Country P75 Downlink (Mbps) P75 RTT (ms)
India 4 114
USA 11 58
Indonesia 5 81
Brazil 8 71
Nigeria 3 201
Pakistan 3 166
Bangladesh 5 114
Japan 17 42
Mexico 7 75
Egypt 4 100
Germany 16 36
Turkey 7 74
Philippines 7 72
Vietnam 7 72
United Kingdom 16 37
South Korea 24 26
Weighted Avg. 7.2 94

We, therefore, update our P75 link estimate 7.2Mbps down, 1.4Mbps up, and 94ms RTT.

This is a mild crime against statistics, not least of all because it averages unlike quantities and fails to sift mobile from desktop, but all the other methods available at time of writing are just as bad. Regardless, this new baseline is half again as much link capacity as last year, showing measurable improvement in networks worldwide.

If you or your company are able to generate a credible worldwide latency estimate in the higher percentiles for next year's update, please get in touch.

Market Factors

The forces that shape the PC population have been largely fixed for many years. Since 2010, volumes have been on a slow downward glide path, shrinking from ~350MM per year in a decade ago to ~260MM in 2018. The pandemic buying spree of 2021 pushed volumes above 300MM per year for the first time in eight years, with the vast majority of those devices being sold at low-end price points — think ~$300 Chromebooks rather than M1 MacBooks.

Lest we assume low-end means "short-lived", recent announcements regarding software support for these devices will considerably extend their impact. This low-end cohort will filter through the device population for years to come, pulling our performance budgets down, even as renewed process improvement is unlocking improved power efficiency and performance at the high end of the first-sale market. This won't be as pronounced as the diffusion of $100 smartphones has been in emerging markets, but the longer life-span of desktops is already a factor in our model.

Test Device Recommendations

Per our methodology from last year which uses the 5-8 year replacement cycle for a PC, we update our target date to late 2017 or early 2018, but leave the average-selling-price fixed between $600-700. Eventually we'll need to factor in the past couple of years of gyrations in inflation and supply chains into account when making an estimate, but not this year.

So what did $650, give or take, buy in late 2017 or early 2018?

One option was a naf looking tower from Dell, optimistically pitched at gamers, with a CPU that scores poorly versus a modern phone., but which blessedly sports 8GB of RAM.

In laptops (the larger segment), ~$650 bought the Lenovo Yoga 720 (12"), with a 2-core (4-thread) Core i3-7100U and 4GB of RAM. Versions with more RAM and a faster chip were available, but cost considerably more than our budget. This was not a fast box. Here's a device with that CPU compared to a modern phone; not pretty:

The phones of wealthy developers absolutely smoke the baseline PC.
The phones of wealthy developers absolutely smoke the baseline PC.

It's considerably faster than some devices still being sold to schools, though.

What does this mean for our target devices? There's wild variation in performance per dollar below $600 which will only increase as inflation-affected cohorts grow to represent a larger fraction of the fleet. Intel's move (finally!) off of 14nm also means that gains are starting to arrive at the low end, but in an uneven way. General advice is therefore hard to issue. That said, we can triangulate based on what we know about the market:

My recommendation, then, to someone setting up a new lab today is not to spend more than $350 on new a test device. Consider laptops with chips like the N4120, N4500, or the N5105. Test devices should also have no more than 8GB of RAM, and preferably 4GB. The 2021 HP 14 is a fine proxy. The updated ~$375 version will do in a pinch, but try to spend less if you can. Test devices should preferably score no higher than 1,000 in single-core Geekbench 6 tests; a line the HP 14's N4120 easily ducks, clocking in at just over 350.

Takeaways

There's a lot of good news embedded in this year's update. Devices and networks have finally started to get faster (as predicted), pulling budgets upwards.

At the same time, the community remains in denial about the disastrous consequences of an over-reliance on JavaScript. This paints a picture of path dependence — frontend isn't moving on from approaches that hurt users, even as the costs shift back onto teams that have been degrading life for users at the margins.

We can anticipate continued improvement in devices, while network gains will level out as the uneven deployment of 5G stumbles forward. Regardless, the gap between the digital haves and have-nots continues to grow. Those least able to afford fast devices are suffering regressive taxation from developers high on DX fumes.

It's no mystery why folks in the privilege bubble are not building with empathy or humility when nobody calls them to account. What's mysterious is that anybody pays them to do it.

The Product Management (PM) and Engineering Management (EM) disciplines have utterly failed, neglecting to put business constraints on the enthusiasms of developers. This burden is falling, instead, to browsers as the experience gaurantor of last resort, indicating a market-wide botching of a core job responsibility and an industry-scale principal-agent issue.

Instead of cabining the FP crowd's proclivities for the benefit of the business, managers meekly repeat bullshit like "you can't hire for fundamentals" while bussing in loads of bootcampers whose React-heavy CV paint jobs have barely dried. It is not to much to ask that managers run bake-offs and hire for fundamental skills that serve the business over time. The alternative is continued failure, even for fellow privilege bubble dwellers.

This post was partially drafted on airplane wifi, and I can assure you that wealthy folks also experience RTT's north of 500ms and channel capacity in the single-digit-Mbps.

Even the wealthiest users step into the wider world sometimes. Are these EMs and PMs really happy to lose that business?

<em>Tap for a larger version.</em><br>Wealthy users are going to experience networks with properties that are even worse than the 'bad' networks offered to the Next Billion Users. At an altitude of 40k feet and a ground speed for 580 MPH somewhere over Alberta, CA, your correspondent's bandwidth is scarce, lopsided, and laggy.
Tap for a larger version.
Wealthy users are going to experience networks with properties that are even worse than the 'bad' networks offered to the Next Billion Users. At an altitude of 40k feet and a ground speed for 580 MPH somewhere over Alberta, CA, your correspondent's bandwidth is scarce, lopsided, and laggy.

Of course, any trend that can't continue won't, and INP's impact is already being felt. The great JavaScript merry-go-round may grind to a stop, but the momentum of consistently bad choices is formidable. Like passengers on a cruise ship ramming a boardwalk at flank speed, JavaScript regret is dawning far too late. As the good ship Scripting shudders and lists on the remains of the ferris wheel, it's not exactly clear how to get off, but the choices that led us here are becoming visible, if only through their negative consequences.

The Great Branch Mispredict

We got to a place where performance has been a constant problem in large part because a tribe of programmers convinced themselves that it wasn't and wouldn't be. The circa '13 narrative asserted that:

It was all bullshit, and many of us spotted it a mile away.

The problem is now visible and demands a solution, but the answers will be largely social, not technical. User-centered values must contest the airtime previouly taken by failed trickle-down DX mantras. Only when the dominant story changes will better architectures and tools win.

How deep was the branch? And how many cycles will the fault cost us? If CPUs and networks continue to improve at the rate of the past two years, and INP finally forces a reckoning, the answer might be as little as a decade. I fear we will not be so lucky; an entire generation has been trained to ignore reality, to prize tribalism rather than engineering rigor, and to devalue fundamentals. Those folks may not find the next couple of years to their liking.

Frontend's hangover from the JavaScript party is gonna suck.


Footnotes

  1. The five second first-load target is arbitrary, and has always been higher than I would prefer. Five seconds on a modern computer is an eternity, but in 2016 I was talked down from my preferred three-second target by Googlers that despaired that "nobody" could hit that mark on the devices and networks of that era.

    This series continues to report budgets with that target, but keen readers will see that I'm also providing three-second numbers. The interactive estimation tool was also updated this year to provides the ability to configure the budget target.

    If you've got thoughts about how this should be set in future, or how it could be handled better, plesae get in touch. ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. Frontend developers are cursed to program The Devil's Computer. Web apps execute on slow devices we don't spec or provision, on runtimes we can barely reason about, lashed to disks and OSes taxed by malware and equally invasive security software, over networks with the variability of carrier pigeons.

    It's vexing, then, that contemporary web development practice has decided that the way to deliver great experiences is to lean into client CPUs and mobile networks, the most unreliable, unscalable properties of any stack.

    And yet, here we are in 2024, with Reactors somehow still anointed to decree how and where code should run, despite a decade of failure to predict the obvious, or even adapt to the world as it has been. The mobile web overtook desktop eight years ago, and the best time to call bullshit on JS-first development was when we could first see the trends clearly.

    The second best time is now. ↩︎

  3. For at least a decade to come, 5G will continue to deliver unevenly depending on factors including building materials, tower buildout, supported frequencies, device density, radio processing power, and weather. Yes, weather (PDF).

    Even with all of those caveats, 5G networks aren't the limiting factor in wealthy geographies; devices are. It will take years for the deployed base to be fully replaced with 5G-capable handsets, and we should expect the diffusion to be "lumpy", with wealthy markets seeing 5G device saturation at nearly all price points well in advance of less affluent countries where capital availability for 5G network roll-outs will dominate. ↩︎ ↩︎

  4. Ookla! Opensignal! Cloudflare! Akamai! I beseech thee, hear my plea and take pity, oh mighty data collectors.

    Whilst you report medians and averages (sometimes interchangeably, though I cannot speculate why), you've stopped publishing useable histogram information about the global situation, making the reports nearly useless for anything but telco marketing. Opensignal has stopped reporting meaningful 4G data at all, endangering any attempt at making sense.

    Please, I beg of you, publish P50, P75, P90, and P95 results for each of your market reports! And about the global situation! Or reach out directly and share what you can in confidence so I can generate better guidance for web developers. ↩︎

  5. Both the benchmark A51 and Pixel 4a devices were eventually sold in 5G variants (A51 5G, Pixel 4a 5G), but at a price of $500 brand-new, unlocked at launch, making them more than 40% above the price of the base models and well above our 2020-2021 ASP of $350-$375. ↩︎

  6. Samsung's lineup is not uniform around the world, with many devices being region-specific in configuration, and some entirely excluded from some markets. The closest modern (Western) Samsung device to the A51 is [the Samsung A23 5G, which scores in the range of the Pixel 4a](https://browser. geekbench.com/v6/cpu/compare/4177625?baseline=350184). As a result of the high score and 5G modem, it's hard to recommend it — or any other current Samsung model — as a lab replacement. ↩︎

  7. The idea that any of the publicly available data sets is globally representative should set off alarms.

    The obvious problems include (but are not limited to):

    • geographic differences in service availability and/or deployed infrastructure,
    • differences in market penetration of observation platforms (e.g., was a system properly localised? Equally advertised?), and
    • mandated legal gaps in coverage.

    Of all the hand-waving we're doing to construct an estimate, this is the biggest leap and one of the hardest to triangulate against. ↩︎

Why Are Tech Reporters Sleeping On The Biggest App Store Story?

Browsers are the most likely disruptor of the mobile duopoly but you'd never know it reading Wired or The Verge.

The tech news is chockablock[1] with antitrust rumblings and slow-motion happenings. Eagle-eyed press coverage, regulatory reports, and legal discovery have comprehensively documented the shady dealings of Apple and Google's app stores. Pressure for change has built to an unsustainable level. Something's gotta give.

This is the backdrop to the biggest app store story nobody is writing about: on pain of steep fines, gatekeepers are opening up to competing browsers. This, in turn, will enable competitors to replace app stores with directories of Progressive Web Apps. Capable browsers that expose web app installation and powerful features to developers can kickstart app portability, breaking open the mobile duopoly.

But you'd never know it reading Wired or The Verge.

With shockingly few exceptions, coverage of app store regulation assumes the answer to crummy, extractive native app stores is other native app stores. This unexamined framing shapes hundreds of pieces covering regulatory events, including by web-friendly authors. The tech press almost universally fails to mention the web as a substitute for native apps and fail to inform readers of its potential to disrupt app stores.

As Cory Doctorow observed:

"An app is just a web-page wrapped in enough IP to make it a crime to defend yourself against corporate predation."

The implication is clear: browsers unchained can do to mobile what the web did to desktop, where more than 70% of daily "jobs to be done" happen on the web.

Replacing mobile app stores will look different than the web's path to desktop centrality, but the enablers are waiting in the wings. It has gone largely unreported that Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) have been held back by Apple and Google denying competing browsers access to essential APIs.[2]

Thankfully, regulators haven't been waiting on the press to explain the situation. Recent interventions into mobile ecosystems include requirements to repair browser choice, and the analysis backing those regulations takes into account the web's role as a potential competitor (e.g., Japan's JFTC (pdf)).

Regulators seem to understand that:

Apple and Google saw what the web did to desktop, and they've laid roadblocks to the competitive forces that would let history repeat on smartphones.

The Buried Lede

The web's potential to disrupt mobile is evident to regulators, advocates, and developers. So why does the tech news fail to explain the situation?

Consider just one of the many antitrust events of recent months. It was covered by The Verge, Mac Rumors, Apple Insider, and more.

None of the linked articles note browser competition's potential to upend app stores. Browsers unshackled have the potential to free businesses from build-it-twice proprietary ecosystems, end rapacious app store taxes, pave the way for new OS entrants — all without the valid security concerns side-loading introduces.

Lest you think this an isolated incident, this article on the impact of the EU's DMA lacks any hint of the web's potential to unseat app stores. You can repeat this trick with any DMA story from the past year. Or spot-check coverage of the NTIA's February report.

Reporters are "covering" these stories in the lightest sense of the word. Barrels of virtual ink has been spilt documenting unfair app store terms, conditions, and competition. And yet.

Disruption Disrupted

In an industry obsessed with "disruption," why is this David vs. Goliath story going untold? Some theories, in no particular order.

First, Mozilla isn't advocating for a web that can challenge native apps, and none of the other major browser vendors are telling the story either. Apple and Google have no interest in seeing their lucrative proprietary platforms supplanted, and Microsoft (your narrator's employer) famously lacks sustained mobile focus.

Next, it's hard to overlook that tech reporters live like wealthy people, iPhones and all. From that vantage point, it's often news that the web is significantly more capable on other OSes (never mind that they spend much of every day working in a desktop browser). It's hard to report on the potential of something you can't see for yourself.

Also, this might all be Greek. Reporters and editors aren't software engineers, so the potential of browser competition can remain understandably opaque. Stories that include mention of "alternative app stores" generally fail to mention that these stores may not be as safe, or that OS restrictions on features won't disappear just because of a different distribution mechanism, or that the security track records of the existing duopolist app stores are sketchy at best. Under these conditions, it's asking a lot to expect details-based discussion of alternatives, given the many technical wrinkles. Hopefully, someone can walk them through it.

Further, market contestability theory has only recently become a big part of the tech news beat. Regulators have been writing reports to convey their understanding of the market, and to shape effective legislation that will unchain the web, but smart folks unversed in both antitrust and browser minutiae might need help to pick up what regulators are putting down.

Lastly, it hasn't happened yet. Yes, Progressive Web Apps have been around for a few years, but they haven't had an impact on the iPhones that reporters and their circles almost universally carry. It's much easier to get folks to cover stories that directly affect them, and this is one that, so far, largely hasn't.

Green Shoots

The seeds of web-based app store dislocation have already been sown, but the chicken-and-egg question at the heart of platform competition looms.

On the technology side, Apple has been enormously successful at denying essential capabilities to the web through a strategy of compelled monoculture combined with strategic foot-dragging.

Missing alt text

As an example, the eight-year delay in implementing Push Notifications for the web[3] kept many businesses from giving the web a second thought. If they couldn't re-engage users at the same rates as native apps, the web might as well not exist on phones. This logic has played out on a loop over the last decade, category-by-category, with gatekeepers preventing competing browsers from bringing capabilities to web apps that would let them supplant app stores[2:1] while simultaneously keeping them from being discovered through existing stores.

Proper browser choice could upend this situation, finally allowing the web to provide "table stakes" features in a compelling way. For the first time, developers could bring the modern web's full power to wealthy mobile users, enabling the "write once, test everywhere" vision, and cut out the app store middleman — all without sacrificing essential app features or undermining security.

Sunsetting the 30% tax requires a compelling alternative, and Apple's simultaneous underfunding of Safari and compelled adoption of its underpowered engine have interlocked to keep the web out of the game. No wonder Apple is massively funding lobbyists, lawyers, and astroturf groups to keep engine diversity at bay while belatedly battening the hatches.

On the business side, managers think about "mobile" as a category. Rather than digging into the texture of iOS, Android, and the differing web features available on each, businesses tend to bulk accept or reject the app store model. One sub-segment of "mobile" growing the ability to route around highway robbery Ts & Cs is tantalising, but not enough to change the game; the web, like other metaplatforms, is only a disruptive force when pervasive and capable.[4]

A prohibition on store discovery for web apps has buttressed Apple's denial of essential features to browsers:

Even if developers overcome the ridiculous hurdles that Apple's shoddy browser engine throws up, they're still <a href='https://developer.apple.com/app-store/review/guidelines/#2.4'>prevented by Apple policy</a> from making interoperable web apps discoverable where users look for them.
Even if developers overcome the ridiculous hurdles that Apple's shoddy browser engine throws up, they're still prevented by Apple policy from making interoperable web apps discoverable where users look for them.

Google's answer to web apps in Play is a dog's breakfast, but it does at least exist for developers willing to put in the effort, or for teams savvy enough to reach for PWA Builder.

Recent developments also point to a competitive future for capable web apps.

First, browser engine choice should become a reality on iOS in the EU in 2024, thanks to the plain language of the DMA. Apple will, of course, attempt to delay the entry of competing browsers through as-yet-unknown strategies, but the clock is ticking. Once browsers can enable capable web apps with easier distribution, the logic of the app store loses a bit of its lustre.

Work is also underway to give competing browsers a chance to facilitate PWAs that can install other PWAs. Web App Stores would then become a real possibility through browsers that support them, and we should expect that regulatory and legislative interventions will facilitate this in the near future. Removed from the need to police security (browsers have that covered) and handle distribution (websites update themselves), PWA app stores like store.app can become honest-to-goodness app management surfaces that can safely facilitate discovery and sync.

PWA app stores like Appscope and store.app exist, but they're hobbled by gatekeepers that have denied competing browsers access to APIs that could turn PWA directories into real contenders.

It's no surprise that Apple and Google have kept private the APIs needed to make this better future possible. They built the necessary infrastructure for the web to disrupt native, then kept it to themselves. This potential has remained locked away within organisations politically hamstrung by native app store agendas. But all of that is about to change.

This begs the question: where's the coverage? This is the most exciting moment in more than 15 years for the web vs. native story, but the tech press is whiffing it.

A New Hope

2024 will be packed to the gills with app store and browser news, from implementation of the DMA, to the UK's renewed push into mobile browsers and cloud gaming, to new legislation arriving in many jurisdictions, to the first attempts at shipping iOS ports of Blink and Gecko browsers. Each event is a chance to inform the public about the already-raging battle for the future of the phone.

It's still possible to reframe these events and provide better context. We need a fuller discussion about what it will mean for mobile OSes to have competing native app stores when the underlying OSes are foundationally insecure. There are also existing examples of ecosystems with this sort of choice (e.g., China), and more needs to be written about the implications for users and developers. Instead of nirvana, the insecure status quo of today's mobile OSes, combined with (even more) absentee app store purveyors, turns side-loading into an alternative form of lock-in, with a kicker of added insecurity for users. With such a foundation, the tech-buying public could understand why a browser's superior sandboxing, web search's better discovery, and frictionless links are better than dodgy curation side-deals and "beware of dog" sign security.

The more that folks understand the stakes, the more likely tech will genuinely change for the better. And isn't that what public interest journalism is for?

Thanks to Charlie, Stuart Langride, and Frances Berriman for feedback on drafts of this post.


Footnotes

  1. Antitrust is now a significant tech beat, and recent events frequently include browser choice angles because regulators keep writing regulations that will enhance it. This beat is only getting more intense, giving the tech press ample column inches to explain the status quo more deeply and and educate around the most important issues.

    In just the last two months:

    All but one of the 19 links above are from just the last 60 days, a period which includes a holiday break in the US and Europe. With the EU's DMA coming into force in March and the CMA back on the job, browser antitrust enforcement is only accelerating. It sure would be great if reporters could occasionally connect these dots. ↩︎

  2. The stories of how Apple and Google have kept browsers from becoming real app stores differ greatly in their details, but the effects have been nearly identical: only their browsers could offer installation of web apps, and those browsers have done shockingly little to support web developers who want to depend on the browser as the platform.

    The ways that Apple has undermined browser-based stores is relatively well known: no equivalent to PWA install or "Smart Banners" for the web, no way for sites to suppress promotion of native apps, no ability for competing browsers to trigger homescreen installation until just this year, etc. etc. The decade-long build of Apple's many and varied attacks on the web as a platform is a story that's both tired and under-told.

    Google's malfeasance has gotten substantially less airtime, even among web developers – nevermind the tech press.

    The story picks up in 2017, two years after the release of PWAs and Push Notifications in Chrome. At the time, the PWA install flow was something of a poorly practised parlour trick: installation used an unreliable homescreen shortcut API that failed on many devices with OEM-customised launchers. The shortcut API also came laden with baggage that prevented effective uninstall and cross-device sync.

    To improve this situation, "WebAPKs" were developed. This new method of installation allows for deep integration with the OS, similar to the Application Identity Proxy feature that Windows lets browsers to provide for PWAs, with one notable exception: on Android, only Chrome gets to use the WebAPK system.

    Without getting into the weeds, suffice to say many non-Chrome browsers requested access. Only Google could meaningfully provide this essential capability across the Android ecosystem. So important were WebAPKs that Samsung gave up begging and reverse engineered it for their browser on Samsung devices. This only worked on Samsung phones where Suwon's engineers could count on device services and system keys not available elsewhere. That hasn't helped other browsers, and it certainly isn't an answer to an ecosystem-level challenge.

    Without WebAPK API access, competing browsers can't innovate on PWA install UI and can't meaningfully offer PWA app stores. Instead, the ecosystem has been left to limp along at the excruciating pace of Chrome's PWA UI development.

    Sure, Chrome's PWA support has been a damn sight better than Safari's, but that's just damning with faith praise. Both Apple and Google have done their part to quietly engineer a decade of unchallenged native app dominance. Neither can be trusted as exclusive stewards of web competitiveness. Breaking the lock on the doors holding back real PWA installation competition will be a litmus test for the effectiveness of regulation now in-flight. ↩︎ ↩︎

  3. Push Notifications were, without exaggeration, the single most requested mobile Safari feature in the eight years between Chromium browsers shipping and Apple's 2023 capitulation.

    It's unedifying to recount all of the ways Apple prevented competing iOS browsers from implementing Push while publicly gaslighting developers who requested this business-critical feature. Over and over and over again. It's also unhelpful to fixate on the runarounds that Apple privately gave companies with enough clout to somehow find an Apple rep to harangue directly. So, let's call it water under the bridge. Apple shipped, so we're good, right?

    Right?

    I regret to inform you, dear reader, that it is not, in fact, "good".

    Despite most of a decade to study up on the problem space, and nearly 15 years of of experience with Push, Apple's implementation is anything but complete.

    The first few releases exposed APIs that hinted at important functionality that was broken or missing. Features as core as closing notifications, or updating text when new data comes in. The implementation of Push that Apple shipped could not allow a chat app to show only the latest message, or a summary. Instead, Apple's broken system leaves a stream of notifications in the tray for every message.

    Many important features didn't work. Some still don't.. And the pathetic set of customisations provided for notifications are a sick, sad joke.

    Web developers have once again been left to dig through the wreckage to understand just how badly Apple's cough "minimalist" cough implementation is compromised. And boy howdy, is it bad.

    Apple's implementation might have passed surface-level tests (gotta drive up that score!), but it's unusable for serious products. It's possible to draw many possible conclusions from this terrible showing, but even the relative charity of Hanlon's Razor is damning.

    Nothing about this would be worse than any other under-funded, trailing-edge browser over the past three decades (which is to say, a bloody huge problem), except for Apple's well-funded, aggressive, belligerent ongoing protest to every regulatory attempt to allow true browser choice for iPhone owners.

    In the year 2024, you can have any iOS browser you like. You can even set them as default. They might even have APIs that look like they'll solve important product needs, but as long as they're forced to rely on Apple's shit-show implementation, the web can't ever be a competitive platform.

    When Apple gets to define the web's potential, the winner will always be native, and through it, Apple's bottom line. ↩︎

  4. The muting effect of Apple's abuse of monopoly over wealthy users to kneecap the web's capabilities is aided by the self-censorship of web developers. The values of the web are a mirror world to native, where developers are feted for adopting bleeding-edge APIs. On the web, features aren't "available" until 90+% of all users have access to them. Because iOS is at least 20% of the pie), web developers don't go near features Apple fails to support. Which is a lot.

    caniuse.com's "Browser Score" is one way to understand the scale of the gap in features that Apple has forced on all iOS browsers.
    The Web Platform Tests dashboard highlights 'Browser Specific Failures', which only measure failures in tests for features the browser claims to support. Not only are iOS browsers held back by Apple's shockingly poor feature support, but the features that _are_ available are broken so often that many businesses feel no option but to retreat to native APIs that Apple doesn't break on a whim, forcing the logic of the app store on them if they want to reach valuable users.

    Apple's pocket veto over the web is no accident, and its abuse of that power is no bug.

    Native app stores can only take an outsized cut if the web remains weak and developers stay dependent on proprietary APIs to access commodity capabilities. A prohibition on capable engines prevents feature parity, suppressing competition. A feature-poor, unreliable open web is essential to prevent the dam from breaking.

    Why, then, have competing browser makers played along? Why aren't Google, Mozilla, Microsoft, and Opera on the ramparts, waving the flag of engine choice? Why do they silently lend their brands to Apple's campaign against the web? Why don't they rename their iOS browsers to "Chrome Lite" or "Firefox Lite" until genuine choice is possible? Why don't they ask users to write their representatives or sign petitions for effective browser choice? It's not like they shrink from it for other worthy causes.

    I'm shocked by not surprised by the tardiness of browser bosses to seize the initiative. Instead of standing up to unfair terms, they've rolled over time and time again. It makes a perverse sort of sense.

    More than 30 years have passed since we last saw effective tech regulation. The careers of those at the top have been forged under the unforgiving terms of late-stage, might-makes-right capitalism, rather than the logic of open markets and standards. Today's bosses didn't rise by sticking their necks above the parapets to argue virtue and principle. At best, they kept the open web dream alive by quietly nurturing the potential of open technology, hoping the situation would change.

    Now it has, and yet they cower.

    Organisations that value conflict aversion and "the web's lane is desktop" thinking get as much of it as they care to afford. ↩︎

  5. Recall that Apple won an upset victory in March after litigating the meaning of the word "may" and arguing that the CMA wasn't wrong to find after multiple years of investigations that Apple were (to paraphrase) inveterate shitheels, but rather that the CMA waited too long (six months) to bring an action which might have had teeth.

    Yes, you're reading that right; Apple's actual argument to the Competition Appeal Tribunal amounted to a mashup of rugged, free-market fundamentalist " but mah regulatory certainty!", performative fainting into strategically placed couches, and feigned ignorance about issues it knows it'll have to address in other jurisdictions.

    Thankfully, the Court of Appeals was not to be taken for fools. Given the harsh (in British) language of the reversal, we can hope a chastened Competition Appeal Tribunal will roll over less readily in future. ↩︎

  6. If you're getting the sense that legalistic hair-splitting is what Apple spends its billion-dollar-per-year legal budget on because it has neither the facts nor real benefits to society on its side, wait 'till you hear about some of the stuff it filed with Japan's Fair Trade Commission!

    A clear strategy is being deployed. Apple:

    • First claims there's no there there (pdf). When that fails...
    • Claims competitors that it has expressly ham-strung are credible substitutes. When that fails...
    • Claims security would suffer if reasonable competition were allowed. Rending of garments is performed while prophets of doom recycle the script that the sky will fall if competing browsers are allowed (which would, in turn, expand the web's capabilities). Many treatments of this script fill the inboxes of regulators worldwide. When those bodies investigate, e.g. the history of iOS's forced-web-monoculture insecurity, and inevitably reject these farcical arguments, Apple...
    • Uses any and every procedural hurdle to prevent intervention in the market it has broken.

    The modern administrative state indulges firms with "as much due process as money can buy", and Apple knows it, viciously contesting microscopic points. When bluster fails, huffingly implemented, legalistic, hair-splitting "fixes" are deployed on the slowest possible time scale. This strategy buys years of delay, and it's everywhere: browser and mail app defaults, payment alternatives, engine choice, and right-to-repair. Even charging cable standardisation took years longer than it should have thanks to stall tactics. This maximalist, joined-up legal and lobbying strategy works to exhaust regulators and bamboozle legislators. Delay favours the monopolist.

    A firm that can transform the economy of an entire nation just by paying a bit of the tax it owes won't even notice a line item for lawyers to argue the most outlandish things at every opportunity. Apple (correctly) calculates that regulators are gun-shy about punishing them for delay tactics, so engagement with process is a is a win by default. Compelling $1600/hr white-shoe associates to make ludicrous, unsupportable claims is a de facto win when delay brings in billions. Regulators are too politically cowed and legally ham-strung to do more, and Apple plays process like a fiddle. ↩︎

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