macOS High Sierra: Safari’s iOS Style Permissions

There was a time that Safari was a clunky, annoying browser that you could install on Windows.  To be fair, pretty much all browsers met that criteria at one time. Things change. In this week’s show and tell I included a link from The Verge, who are shipping Safari as the best reason to upgrade your Mac to High Sierra. So far it’s hard to argue with that. With features added to both iOS 11 and macOS, there is a lot to like about the development of Safari. Of particular interest is the new ability to control some of the internet's more annoying tendencies with Safari's iOS style permissions

This is one of the areas that I have tried to balance security concerns with usability. I haven't always felt comfortable with the results. For a time I used a tricked out install of Firefox, in accordance with one of my favourite privacy resources. The industry around tracking and data collection is so cunning that extensions can become a data point for tracking in themselves. This is one of many reasons the evolution of Safari has become so interesting, moving protection to within the webkit framework brings that balance a little closer.

Safari's iOS Style Permissions on macOS

It is the new granular approach to permissions that I am most impressed with. Particularly on macOS. Safari itself now contains the kind of detailed permissions that we are used to applying on a per app basis for iOS. Something I find incredibly annoying — and invasive — is having websites try to send me push notifications. Who in their right mind would want their browser to badger them all day long? It's more than just an annoyance, though. While some of the older security issues of Push have been incrementally addressed, by design they provide another means for tracking. Look closely and you will notice there is an irony in the way Apple is implicated in the origins of this. Thankfully, they are getting better at addressing these — perhaps unintended — consequences. Notifications are among the many things addressed in the new ability to control permissions for Safari. The upside of Push, it is a permission based protocol. So ultimately, it is one of the web’s annoyances that we can actually opt out of, and now without much trouble. It is not the only one.

 

Safari's iOS style permissions
If you allow sites to request permission to send notifications, you will have the option to allow or deny on a site by site basis. Permission can be revoked via the Safari preferences

 

The influence of the mobile platform on macOS is becoming more and more obvious. The rollout of Continuity has no doubt made this inevitable, but we have seen more and more features make the crossover. From small, but important additions like Night Shift, to the way iOS devices have been the testing ground for significant new technologies. From a user standpoint, I feel the most significant, visible influence right now is the approach to permissions. The improved preference allow a user to block an entire category. Or you can manage them on a case by cade basis. Like iOS, you can manage access to the microphone and camera, access to location, and notifications. Then there are usability features, like the ability to turn on Reader mode by default for particular sites.  And, you can now put an end to those pesky auto-pay videos — you know who you are… Macworld.

Safari's iOS style permissions
This particular feature has been a hit, and with good reason. Autoplay is one of the most obnoxious features that internet advertisers have invented.

 

 

You can access all of these permissions in Safari’s preferences. Or, if you want to change settings on the fly, you can right-click — or ctrl + click — on a website’s name in the omnibar, and select Settings for this Website…

Improvements to Safari macOS
Settings for individual sites can be adjusted, or controlled from the address bar

Gaining Control

The reality of the modern internet is it is a cesspit of shady behaviour by supposedly legitimate actors. Without even getting into the relevant arguments, the performance of websites is a case in itself for having control over the excess. I won’t lean into the rest of the story here, I can make my case another time. Suffice to say, there are good reasons to have some control over this. I will say that Apple’s interventions are doubly interesting, considering the industry built up around its fandom. Apple related sites are some of the worstoffenders too. My sense is there is much more nuance to this than you can glean from the exploding heads who are worried about their wallets. The argument that Apple is doing more to save advertising than harm it in these moves, should carry water with anyone thinking clearly.

But Webkit more generally has ushered in significant, positive changes. Especially when it comes to performance. Webkit also provides significant advantages for the implementation of content Blockers. One of many reasons Safari is starting to back up some of it’s claims.

Reasons to use Safari Browser on iOS

iOS users have had good reason to keep an alternative browser around. I still keep iCab Mobile on hand, for all the little things it can do. It has always been like a browsing pocketknife. It really is the only genuinely extensible, standalone browser on iOS. 1 The built-in download manager retains its utility, even as we move into the brave new world of the iOS Files App. For as long as I have been an iOS user, anytime I hit a road block while browsing, I knocked it over with iCab. However, Safari is extensible insofar as iOS itself is extensible. As the operating system has improved, so too have the default apps. Like other native apps, it is the system wide hooks that make it so useful. 2 From handoff, to iCloud synced history, bookmarks and reading list. All of these features are available system wide. Where third-party developers have cottoned on to the beauty of app extensions, iOS has improved out of sight. With Apple taking possession of Workflow, this is only going to get better.

From the more incremental improvements in iOS 10, it is hard to argue that Safari is Apple’s most mature, even its best iOS app. In iOS 11, Safari comes loaded with all kinds of new tricks. Like macOS, there is further control granted to user permissions. Although, it is more clear the influence iOS has had on the Mac. There is also the addition of WebRTC and media capture, and even access to experimental features. Nobody could argue that iOS — the iPhone in particular —hasn’t significantly influenced web technology. One of its most significant achievements is surely that hand it played in burying Flash. I would argue that this trend is going to continue through the extension of new features in Safari.

Look Again

If, for whatever reason, you have held on to the impression that Safari is a clunky waste of time, trust me it is worth another look. You don’t have to go far to find lingering impressions of the browser are outdated. 3 I know, I was a subscriber to that view. Even for established users, there are new reasons to to use Safari. The changes in macOS High Sierra and iOS 11 are impressive. Apple has found a way to make privacy its point of difference. While I would urge people to see that for what it is, I'm not churlish enough to overlook the way it benefits users. These a big improvements.

  1. Despite what other browsers may claim
  2. The Notes App is a particularly good example of this.
  3. The icon in that link was replaced more than 3 years ago. The browser is unrecognisable from that time.